Innovative Game-based Laboratory Environment Launches

5/16/2011

In tomorrow's classrooms, students will be encouraged to pull out their laptops and play games in class. Stevens Institute of Technology professors are leading the way in game-based learning with an innovative method for teaching Mechanical Engineering students about machine dynamics. They have developed an online laboratory in which students learn by interacting in a virtual environment, much like massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) such as Half-life 2, The Sims, World of Warcraft, and Second Life.

After two small-scale pilot runs in fall 2010 and spring 2011, the game-based laboratory will be rolled out to all ME358 students in fall 2011 as a way to supplement lectures, hands-on laboratories and simulation based learning. The game-based laboratory environment was developed by Mechanical Engineering Research Scientist El-Sayed Aziz, Associate Professor Sven Esche, and Professor and Department Director Constantin Chassapis.

"The game-based laboratory environment has a number of advantages that a traditional laboratory cannot offer, such as features for student collaboration and integrated student assessment," says Dr. Esche. "In addition, the Lab allows students to learn in a virtual environment, in which they are already comfortable."

Follow up:

The game-based laboratory environment was created as part of the course "ME358 Mechanisms and Machine Dynamics," which introduces the principles of kinematics and dynamics and applies them to linkages, cam systems, gear trains, belt and train drives, and couplings. Students, professors, and teaching assistants design their own avatars and discuss projects through instant messaging, all within a virtual three-dimensional environment of the laboratory. In this virtual laboratory, the laws of physics apply. Students are able to manipulate equipment and machinery in order to set up their experiments. Once set up, the experiment yields data based on the interactions of the parts. Progress is monitored by the professor and TAs, and learning is assessed with quizzes before and after laboratory exercise.

"More and more, gaming engines are utilized to create environments with educational objectives, such as the popular America's Army game, developed by the United States military," says Dr. Chassapis. "Stevens is taking this model and applying it to the classroom, so that students can learn by completing experiments in cyberspace without having to go to a laboratory."

Game-based education is an ideal teaching style for the "Net Generation," comprised of teens and young adults today who are comfortable interacting in online environments, have a mastery over Internet use and gaming, and tend toward learning experiences that are digital, connected, experiential, immediate, and social. They are inclined to study in groups instead of alone, and they learn by doing rather than by listening. A game-based laboratory addresses these needs by providing an immersive, collaborative online learning experience in which students design and carry out experiments without needing to set foot inside a laboratory.

"These highly connected students responded well to the laboratory experience," says Dr. Aziz. "We received a lot of positive feedback about the laboratory. As experts in games and Internet communications, the students were also able to identify key points that could be improved."

Professors are tweaking the game-based laboratory in preparation for a new semester of students. Based on the success of this program, integrating game-based learning into other courses is on the horizon at Stevens.