Gaming Unlocks a New Style of Learning at Penn State

By Heather Herzog and Jackie Campbell, Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK– From “Pong” to “Guitar Hero,” video games have come a long way in the past four decades. Today’s games can offer students more than just a few hours of fun. At Penn State’s Educational Gaming Commons (EGC) Lab, video games are unlocking a new style of learning.

The EGC Lab is located in Findlay 6A, where gaming experts from ITS (Information Technology Services)-Education Technology Services work with students and faculty to produce video games that enhance education. The lab has been operating since fall 2009, and in the past four semesters, has logged more than 21,000 hours of gameplay by more than 3,000 unique visitors. With emerging technologies and games on the horizon, the EGC lab continues to reach out to new students and faculty.

Unlike gaming facilities at many other universities, the EGC serves the entire University, not just a particular department. The lab boasts eight Windows-based PCs and five 52-inch LCD TV screens, all intended for use by students and faculty. Penn State faculty can reserve the room to teach their classes or conduct research. When the lab isn’t reserved, students are free to use the EGC and can even bring their own games into the lab. Aside from a range of educational computer games created by the EGC staff, students can also take advantage of Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii consoles.

Chris Stubbs, the project manager at the EGC, believes that educational games offer a unique approach to learning. For students who struggle with traditional teaching methods, games can put a fresh twist on education.

“Games provide students with something they can’t get in a regular classroom: experience,” Stubbs said, “People learn in different ways. Some people need a hands-on approach. When you play a game, you participate in it – as opposed to passively listening to something. Students are more likely to remember those experiences when they’re out in the real world.”

Instead of taking notes in a lecture hall or spending long hours at the library memorizing facts, Stubbs says students can use games as a way to practice problem solving in real-life situations.

Faculty members can work with EGC staff to create games specifically designed for their classes. Currently, a game called “Calibrate” is in the works for IST assistant professor William McGill as a way to teach risk management in the workplace. Jane Charlton, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics, has also worked with the EGC to produce a game designed to teach basic astronomy to middle school students.

Bim Angst, an instructor at Penn State Schuylkill, collaborated with EGC staff to create “Typo,” a quick-thinking game that allows students to strengthen their written communication skills. During the game, students must identify spelling and grammatical errors in sentences that scroll down the screen. Other games created by the EGC include “Chemblaster,” “Etymologie,” “Peril,” “Hangman,” “EcoRacer” and “The EGC Paper Chase,” all of which can be found on the Educational Gaming Commons website at http://gaming.psu.edu.

Some professors choose to teach with games that many students already know and love. Two professors from the School of Music, Ann Clements and Tom Cody, have worked with EGC staff to use the pop-cultural hit “Guitar Hero World Tour” to teach music instruction in Music 112 (Intro to Guitar Techniques). The online interactive game “Second Life” has also been used as a way to teach a range of topics, from Spanish language skills to information security.

But, games aren’t meant to replace real life. Rather, the situations that games simulate prepare students for situations they might encounter in the workplace.

”I don’t ever view games as a replacement for traditional teaching techniques,” Stubbs explained, “we think of games as a tool in a toolbox. It’s something you have the opportunity to use.”

Technology develops at lightning speed, and students are always on top of the trends. Fortunately, the EGC is too. Stubbs and his coworkers are constantly working to improve the EGC Lab and develop new gaming technology. Future Penn Staters may even use educational games on their smartphones.

“The majority of our games have been built to be Web accessible,” Stubbs said, “but as students come to campus with more smartphones, we have started to explore mobile gaming. You could walk around campus as opposed to sitting at your computer. We’re all excited about that possibility.”

Stubbs added that the success of educational gaming at Penn State reflects students’ open-minded attitude toward learning. “Students, in general, tend to be supportive,” he observed. “They’re interested in new approaches, interacting and having fun.”

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