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College Algebra, Engineering Classes Get Healthy Dose of Games-Based Learning

College professors say they rarely see their peers mixing games into classes, so a few outliers are developing their own games to help students understand complex subjects.

In the first three years of elementary school, 65 percent of teachers use digital games to help students learn, according to the 2015 Speak Up report from the nonprofit Project Tomorrow. But by the time those students get to high school, just 31 percent of their teachers incorporate games into instruction.  

While the survey doesn't measure college game use, college professors say they rarely see their peers mixing games into classes. That said, a few outliers are developing their own games to help students understand complex subjects including algebra and engineering.  

If math professors don't help develop educational games, then no one else will, said Kathleen Offenholley, associate professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York. Few math games exist for college students, though plenty of designers create elementary school games. On top of that, games are expensive, difficult to make, and call for plenty of trial and error and student support, said Brianno Coller, professor of mechanical engineering at Northern Illinois University.  

Both of these professors recognize that games can inspire students to enjoy math, and they received National Science Foundation funding to develop high-quality math games. Digital games and simulations amp up student interest in algebra, inject fun into learning and connect math equations with application opportunities, Offenholley said. They also make algebra come to life visually.  

"I'm already excited about math, I already love doing it, and my students are usually not in that position," Offenholley said. "By coming in from a game, we can help them to find that excitement about doing math."  

Offenholley worked with computer information systems professor Ching-Song Wei and associate English professor Francesco Crocco on a plan to create a game-based math curriculum. Offenholley is working with educational game developers to create three new games this year that will be open-source and available for other professors to use. This summer, she'll pilot the first game in a no-charge math and geography class for 20 incoming freshman.

In The Sampson Effect by Electric Funstuff, students go on an adventure in disaster preparedness. xPonum by Neuronic Games allows students to explore as they collect gems by manipulating equations in this puzzle game. Another puzzle game, Algebots! by BumbleBear Games, teaches more to the test as students solve equations with cards.   

Math games created with these types of designer-educator partnerships feel more fun and more creatively incorporate math, Offenholley said. Ultimately she hopes the games in this class will encourage more students to study geographic information systems and help them have fun while they learn. She also hopes that more math professors will start using games in class as they see high-quality games that teach profound things. In the fall, the first game will be available for any math professor to use at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY.

DIY game development  

While Offenholley is working with designers, Coller has been developing his own games for students. He got his start in game development after a classroom experience in the early 2000s.   

Back then, Coller introduced a theory in class by showing a NASA Mars rover animation that illustrated how the rover worked. Students sat on the edge of their seats as they eagerly watched the rover operate. Once the animation ended, their excitement evaporated rapidly as Coller started talking about theory.  

This experience led Coller on his own expedition to develop games that would keep students engaged. In 2005, he modified an open-source car racing game so that students in his junior-level class would have to build computer programs to make their car go.   

But his expedition didn't end there. Coller saw another opportunity to connect the theory that students learned in class with the reason they became interested in engineering in the first place.  

"Students come to engineering or choose engineering because they like the idea of building things, they like tinkering, they like making things work," Coller said. "And then they get to these classes and realize all they're doing is math and a bunch of calculations."  

In their sophomore year, many students drop out of their first real engineering class because of this disconnect between math theory and reality. So in 2009, Coller started a game from scratch called Spumone that allowed students to apply the math they were learning.  

In the game, players pilot a vehicle in a simulated world as they take on challenges and level up using the math and programming skills they've learned. Instead of just solving equations to get the right answer in a textbook, students are solving equations and analyzing the results so they can help their vehicle accomplish tasks in the game.  

Coller worked with researchers to study the student outcomes of the game, and they found that students were more engaged and learned deeper than they did before. Now another instructor at Northern Illinois University and an instructor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering are testing out Spumone in their courses to see if they will experience the same outcomes. Coller is using their feedback to make improvements to the game and may eventually make the game freely available to other instructors or charge a small fee.  

"I do it I guess just because I have so much fun with it," Coller said. "If it wasn't fun for me, I wouldn't do it."