Could gaming revitalize engineering education?

Dec. 11, 2012
Could gaming revitalize engineering education?
I confess that in my youth, I sometimes got bored sitting in engineering classes. It usually happened as I looked at a chalkboard full of equations and listened to a dry presentation on concepts that were hard for 19-year-olds to relate to. I often found myself wondering if there were easier ways of understanding all the stuff I was expected to retain.It turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought this way. A cadre of believers in an idea called gamification claim they know how to improve the educational experience. The underlying premise of gamification is that people are more willing to do chores that are relatively unappealing if the experience can be made more gamelike.An example of what a little gaming can do for mundane tasks comes from a recently published book on the subject called For the Win. It’s written by two World of Warcraft players who also created what they say is the world’s first course on gamification at the Wharton business school. Authors Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter describe a competition Microsoft created among its employees to ferret out translation mistakes in a Windows operating system. Workers earned points by spotting problems, and scores were posted on a leader board for all to see. Structuring the task this way, say the two Warcraft players, enlisted two key traits of good games: instant feedback via a point system and competition to be the top dog on the leader board.Gaming techniques like these have more utility than just for scrubbing out software bugs. Gaming, in fact, has been a popular topic at the TED conference, an annual nonprofit confab devoted to spreading ideas in technology, entertainment, and design. TED presenter Jane McGonigal, a game designer and director of game R&D at a think tank called the Institute for the Future, points out that gamers spend about 3 billion hours weekly playing online. One reason for all this activity is that people are happier working hard at playing games than when they are just hanging out, she says.People are also happier playing games than sitting in classrooms, which is why gaming applications in education attract a lot of attention at TED.“School… is a game, it’s just not a terribly well-designed game,” says Seth Priebatsch, a TED presenter and developer at a game-creating firm called SCVNGR. “There are levels: A, B, C, and so on. There are statuses. I mean, what is valedictorian, but a status? If we called a valedictorian a ‘white-knight paladin level 20,’ I think people would probably work a lot harder…But let’s apply (game concepts) consciously. Like, why have games that you can lose? Why go from an A to an F or a B to a C? That sucks. Why not level-up? At Princeton, they’ve actually experimented with this: They have quizzes where you gain experience points, and you level up from B to an A.”Let’s hope engineering schools embrace gaming. After all, engineering programs at many universities experience 50% dropout rates because students have so much trouble with the curricula.Opinions on how to add gaming elements to education should abound, simply because lots of game designers have experienced boring classrooms. “There’s about 350 colleges around the world teaching video game courses. That means there’s literally thousands of new ideas,” says game designer and TED presenter David Perry.And out of those thousands of new ideas, hopefully at least a few about how to teach concepts like rigid body mechanics in the form of a game.— Leland Teschler, Editor
About the Author

Leland Teschler

Lee Teschler served as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design until 2014. He holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan; a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan; and an MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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