Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Coller: The game’s the thing

February 1, 2010

by Joe King

Some might think that by incorporating video games into his mechanical engineering courses, Brianno Coller has given in to the mentality of, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Brianno Coller

Of course, it is difficult to argue with the positive results he has achieved since making that switch. According to various metrics he has applied, students enrolled in the courses that include a gaming component:

  • Are more than twice as engaged by the material than students in classes taught using traditional methods.
  • Score better on tests measuring mastery of basic concepts in 18 of 21 categories (scoring worse in only one).
  • Are much more likely to enroll in advanced versions of the classes. (In the case of his Dynamic Systems and Control course, undergraduate enrollment has grown from about five students a few years ago to 45 students last fall.)

Those results have been promising enough to help Coller attract more than $550,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation to further his work. The most recent grant – $150,000 received late last year – will allow him to explore fundamental questions about exactly how video games enhance the educational experience.

To date, Coller has incorporated gaming into classes on computational methods and dynamic systems control.

For those who scoff at the notion of video gaming in the classroom, it should be noted that Coller is not merely handing out X-Box controllers and walking away. His students don’t just play the games; they program them, striving to find ways to maneuver race cars and motorcycles around a track ever faster and more precisely.

“We give them engineering tasks within the game, asking them to design driving algorithms that allow them to meet specific objectives,” Coller said.

While striving to meet those objectives students get “hooked” on the game, much as they do the video games many play in their spare time.

Like commercial games, the challenges of Coller’s game increase in complexity as the semester progresses. Students must figure out how to pilot their vehicles across different track conditions and configurations, figure out the optimal moment to shift gears, analyze the fuel economy and a host of other challenges.

Students are sucked into the action bit by bit and, Coller has found, consequently devote far more time to the class than their non-gaming predecessors.

Coller believes the approach works because it compels participants to think like engineers applying knowledge, instead of engineering students trying to learn information by rote.

“It’s much more complicated and engaging than any text,” Coller said. “They get an authentic problem to work on and it allows them to work at things and learn in a deeper way.”

Coller has partnered with David Shernoff, who studies educational psychology in the NIU College of Education, to measure the level of student engagement. Shernoff’s research found that students in the courses utilizing gaming were more than twice as engaged (about 2.5 times) in the class as students receiving standard instruction.

To explore how and why it gets results, he will use gaming to teach a very specific skill within a course rather than as the basis for an entire course. He hopes it will help him better grasp the learning mechanisms at play. The game will take days rather than months to play out. It will target just a few learning and achievement outcomes that can be measured by well-established instruments.

The study will focus on questions such as:

  • What is the best way to set goals in the game?
  • Do you encourage pursuit of high scores or reward those who explore more advanced avenues?

In another phase, he will examine whether allowing customization of characters and vehicles makes the games more engaging and fosters more learning. He will compare competitive multi-player gaming to cooperative gaming. Later, he will explore if kinesthetic controllers (like those utilized in Wii gaming systems) help some students learn better.

His studies will help to build up an area of research that some believe is sorely lacking: Educators have been urged for more than 20 years to learn from video game designers and incorporate the lessons into the classroom, but there has been little empirical study to prove that such approaches work.

Coller, who has written research articles on his work and has given presentations at several conferences, is one of the invited speakers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference this month in San Diego. He also hopes to share his software and expertise with other engineering programs around the country.