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Future Engineers Race Through a Video Game to Learn What Computers Can Do.

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Associate Editor.

Mechanical Engineering 128(11), 36-37 (Nov 01, 2006) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2006-NOV-3

Abstract

This paper discusses the use of video game in teaching mechanical engineering students. The course teaches students how engineering computation and simulation work. Students learn how to get computers to run various mathematical procedures. When they fire up their computers, students see a fairly standard gaming image: a race car and a track. They quickly learn that they will have to program the system to get the car to obey their commands. They start small and at first, they do not even have steering wheels or pedals to control their vehicles. Within a few commands, they can get their car to go straight but then the track turns and they crash into the wall. There are certain types of calculations they have to learn, and they get better and better as the semester goes on, until at the end they're doing sophisticated calculations.

Article

At Northern Illinois University, future engineers race video-game cars for class credit; they learn computer programming as they drive.

Grahic Jump LocationAt Northern Illinois University, future engineers race video-game cars for class credit; they learn computer programming as they drive.

When mechanical engineering students show up for their first college class, they think they know a thing or two about engineering. Often what they really know is a thing or two about how machines work, according to Brianno Coller.

According to Coller, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., “Teaching undergraduate engineering is kind of hard because students come in not knowing a whole lot about what engineering is, exactly. They know they like machines, and they’re excited about airplanes, cars, machines, or whatever, and then we professors throw a whole bunch of math at them, and they don’t see the machines, cars, airplanes.”

Coller has found a way for engineering students in his advanced computing class to connect with the material. To add a little vroom to the class, he’s turned to his students’ 1 favorite free-time activity: playing video games. The course B teaches students how engineering computation and simula1tion work; essentially, students learn how to get computers 1 to run various mathematical procedures. It’s necessary stuff,: but it can be as dreary as it sounds, Coller said.

“The textbooks are really dry,” he said. “So we turned it into a video game in which they solve problems that are very realistic.”

When they fire up their computers, students see a fairly standard gaming image: a racecar and a track. They quickly learn they’ll have to program the system to get the car to obey their commands.

They start small. At first, they don’t even have steering wheels or pedals to control their vehicles.

“They write a little program that controls stepping on the gas pedal, stepping on the brake, turning the steering wheel left or right,” Coller said. “Within a few commands, they can get their car to go straight; but then the track turns and they crash into the wall.”

So they learn how to program the car to take the turns.

“By week two, they’re driving around the track and staying on,” he said. “Then they want to go faster, and for that they have to be more sophisticated in how they drive and steer and shift.

“There’s certain types of calculations they have to learn, and they get better and better as the semester goes on, until at the end they’re doing sophisticated calculations,” he said.

By the time class winds up, students are racing each other.

Coller fell into the idea for game-based learning while searching for a way to keep his students motivated. At first, he tried to inject enthusiasm into budding engineers bored with textbooks by showing them NASA simulations of spacecraft bound for Mars and Jupiter.

“I’d be bringing these animations into class saying, ‘Here’s how what we do in class corresponds with what this computer animation does,’ ” Coller said.

Students got the analogy, but their enthusiasm was short-lived, he added.

He figured student enthusiasm for the subject might last longer if they could work with the computer code that runs the animation. In other words, Coller wanted an interactive, code-driven animated medium. Then came the light bulb moment: “A medium already exists—the video game,” he said.

For the class, which he’s taught the past two years, Coller uses Tores, an online open-source racecar video game, which he has modified substantially.

“Cars are really nice because you can construct authentic engineering problems with them,” Coller said. “Students can solve real engineering problems and all my students know how a car works. People can rely on previous experiences and intuitively know how to get the computer programs that drive the car to work.”

He’s received a grant from the National Science Foundation to help with class costs. If more NSF funding comes through, the university will introduce the video games to other engineering courses.

They start small. At first, they don’t ewers have steering wheels or pedals to control their vehicles.

After all, why slog through a textbook when you can play video games at home for college credit?

Copyright © 2006 by ASME
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