At some point, engineering professor Brianno Coller realized he didn't like slogging through dry math problems as an instructor any more than he had as a student. So he thought about what could liven things up — animation! interactivity! — and it hit him: video games.The jury is still out on the general effectiveness of video games as active learning tool.
He designed one, and now his third-year students at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb build virtual race cars, complete with roaring engines and screeching tires, that must maneuver an increasingly challenging course. Along the way, they're exposed to computational math, a basic building block of engineering.
"I use games to, in some sense, throw away the textbook," says Coller, 42, who played Lunar Lander and other video games as a kid. "My philosophy is that learning can be a burdensome chore or it can be an interesting journey."
Around the country, pockets of faculty have been adding games to their courses as a way to stimulate learning.
Coller's research, supported by the National Science Foundation, found that students using his video games spent roughly twice as much time doing homework and demonstrated deeper learning compared with students who learned through traditional lectures and textbook. "I got kind of addicted to it, like I would other games," engineering major Alex Raz, 25, says of a game created by Coller called Spumone. "It's like really learning, not like just going through the motions on paper."There are differing schools of thought about whether to do the simulation or the concept first. I sometimes use a deck of playing cards to illustrate price discovery in a competitive market, before a supply-and-demand graph ever goes up.
University of Southern California education professor Richard Clark remains skeptical. "There is no compelling evidence that serious games lead to greater motivation to learn than other instructional programs," he says. Better, he says, to teach the concept, then let students practice in a game-like environment.
[Mercyhurst's Kristan] Wheaton, too, cautions against overselling the value of games. "There's a lot of promise there," he says. "But right now the hype meter is pretty high."