Scissors, Paper, Rocks: Gamification in Earth Sciences

 Just this week, Minecraft was purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion, a fitting symbol of the games industry’s massive reach and appeal. It’s fair to say that gaming has long since left the basement and entered into the mainstream.

From the mainstream then to more literal streams, Dr Kira Westaway and Dr Paul Hesse have developed a project that taps into the broad appeal of gaming, in an effort to enhance the teaching of some traditionally difficult concepts in earth sciences. Two games, ‘Flow Your Boat’ and ‘Create Your Own Ice Age’, use a simple, variables-based system to demonstrate complex scientific principles in action.

Flow your Boat game - image courtesty Kira Westaway
Flow Your Boat game

Kira was inspired to undertake the project by her husband, an avid gamer, who can happily spend hours immersed in a gaming world developing his skills. “It’s really intriguing,” Kira observes, “gamers can sometimes spend up to six hours playing, operating at a high level in intelligent, complex environments.” One dimension of it is the community: “it’s a very social experience, playing people around the world, making connections.” However, she also notes some of the most successful games have been based on incredibly simple concepts, particularly with the boom in mobile gaming. “It made me wonder, what inspires people to learn and develop these skills? Can we harness that enthusiasm?”

‘Flow Your Boat’, demonstrating principles taught in a 1st year course, and ‘Create Your Own Ice Age’, for 3rd year, were developed with the assistance of an L&T competitive grant. In both games, students are provided with three variables, and set about unlocking the best combinations to achieve their objectives. In doing so, the students experience the key concepts in action, receiving direct feedback and seeing the consequences of altering the variables.

Ice Age game - Glacial - Image Courtesy Kira Westaway
Create Your Own Ice Age game

Having now trialled the games, student evaluation has shown an improvement in the understanding of these concepts, increased student engagement in the topic, and in some cases, inspired further study. Kira now plans to deploy the games as part of the Kickstart program for next session.

Join Kira at Learning and Teaching Week for ‘Learning with byte; the gamification of key concepts in earth science’. Kira will be demonstrating and discussing her project, from design philosophy through to implementation and feedback from student evaluation – Monday, 22nd, 11:30 – 1:00pm  Register here.

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