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Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 15, 2016

Can video games solve world problems?

Two researchers seeking to solve a real-world problem create a class in a model of interdisciplinary collaboration

It began, as so many things do, with the realization that a gap exists. Josh Lawler, professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, saw there were very few games about climate change that are scientifically accurate—and actually fun to play.

Josh Lawler, professor of environmental and forest sciences

Josh Lawler, professor of environmental and forest sciences.

Knowing that research shows that games are an effective tool for learning, in 2015 Lawler connected with Dargan Frierson, associate professor in the School of Atmospheric Sciences, and they started asking colleagues if they were interested in tackling this problem together.

The result of their networking includes EarthGamesUW, a group that aims to design games that increase awareness about climate change. EarthGamesUW would also quickly develop into an interdisciplinary independent study course.

Within a year of its inception, the group has been nationally recognized for producing prize-winning games (two of which are on showcase at the Smithsonian). In Winter 2017, the EarthGamesUW independent study will now be structured around a central classroom experience offering up to 6 credits.

But the impact extends even further. EarthGamesUW offers students from diverse disciplines—computer science to English, information sciences to education—the opportunity to produce real products and practice professional skills, all while having an impact on climate change.

Networking for interdisciplinary collaboration

Dargan Frierson, associate professor of atmospheric sciences

Dargan Frierson, associate professor of atmospheric sciences.

Lawler and Frierson recognized early on that the concept of creating games about climate change depended on tapping into the expertise of many others outside their own disciplines. “One of the first things we did was meet with people who knew more about this than we did, and ask if we were crazy for trying this,” says Lawler. “They had the expertise we didn’t have.”

Together, they turned to a variety of people for advice and participation, including game designers, high school teachers, and professors and graduate students in the Information School, Learning Sciences, Human Centered Design and Engineering, and Computer Science and Engineering’s Center for Game Science.

“Games hold a great deal of potential for providing experiences that players can learn from,” says Theresa Horstman, research assistant professor for Education Program Games. “It’s not enough to know the facts: games allow players to interact with different contributing factors of climate change as a system in creative, experiential ways.”

As these new partnerships came together, the idea to create inspiring video games about climate change evolved into an actionable project.

Frierson says that one of the most rewarding parts of the process was the group collaboration across disciplines. “It’s gotten me out of my building to see all the really cool work that’s happening around UW.” He adds, “It’s occurred to me that probably the UW is the best place in the world to do something like this.”

From idea to reality: Developing a meaningful independent study course

Out of this accumulated input grew great momentum. Lawler and Frierson applied for and received funding from the Science for Nature and People Program in Santa Barbara. The funding supported the development of the EarthGamesUW goals, starting with the independent study course.

In order to attract students from various disciplines, Lawler and Frierson advertised the independent study with the iSchool’s capstone and listed it on the Undergraduate Research website. Through the independent study, students designed and created short games of various types, from board games to video games. They lent their broad expertise—engineering, education, climate science, and narrative-building to produce successful, creative games—games that are actually fun.

Recognition and awards followed. Two of these student teams created games that won top prizes in the 2015 Climate Game Jam in Washington D.C. Both were subsequently featured in an event at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in January:

  • Climate Quest, a video game, was designed by Zuoming Shi, computer science and engineering doctoral student, and Ben Peterson, Information School undergraduate, in collaboration with Frierson.
  • AdaptNation, a table-top game, was designed by Will Chen, graduate student in aquatic and fishery sciences, and Rob Thompson, graduate student in computer science and engineering, along with Seattle artist Rachel Lee.

For raising greater public awareness about climate change through games, the combination of fun and factual content is essential. The value of these games is not only that they are original and engaging, but they are also powerful teaching tools, Frierson says. Parents and teachers can trust that the games are scientifically accurate because they are designed by UW students and faculty.

“I wanted to get involved with EarthGamesUW because I’ve always been interested in making games that will help pass an important message to its users,” says Sally Wei, a junior who is majoring in computer science and minoring in French. “I write novels in my free time, and EarthGamesUW helps me gain experience in storyboard writing as well as programming.”

Expanding the independent study into an interdisciplinary course

What started as an independent study option is now being expanded into the classroom: beginning in Winter of 2017, EarthGamesUW will launch a classroom-based course option with a shared syllabus. Frierson credits the College of the Environment and Julia Parrish, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, with recognizing the potential of EarthGamesUW to provide a combination of classroom learning and the experience of building actual products.

The new course for 12-15 students will allow students to create games through working both inside and outside the classroom. The course design will allow for a common student experience, while “break out” groups design their own unique projects. To maintain some of the flexibility of the independent study model, the course will be offered for variable credits—anywhere from 2-6, depending on the needs of individual projects and commitments. The new model is intended to satisfy student demand while qualifying for more departmental funding for resources such as paid leadership and research opportunities for students. This investment could help EarthGamesUW reach its goals of K-12 curricula development and possibly even expand to Spanish-language video games.

Cultivating opportunities to transfer skills beyond the classroom

Both Lawler and Frierson speak enthusiastically about the many reasons a learning experience like EarthGamesUW can be attractive and valuable to students. Academically, the 5-credit course can fulfill a capstone requirement for departments such as the iSchool. Students can also describe games they designed in resumes and portfolios, and showcase their experience with project management and the ability to work and problem-solve collaboratively and creatively.

Frierson notes that resilience and persistence—the ability to recalibrate and try again when an aspect of a project is not working—are real-world skills that are highly transferable. Students also experience the benefit of sharing work with peers in a supportive atmosphere, and learn adaptable skills of self-analysis. In creating useful products, students take ownership over their own learning. In addition, students are drawn by the higher purpose of promoting education about climate change.

Says Lawler, “I’m hoping that the students coming out of these classes will have a better understanding of climate change, but will also have new innovative ideas about how we can learn about climate change.”

Students are driven to excel with the opportunity to make “real stuff,” says Frierson. “Students today have a lot of extra motivation if their work is going to be seen by a wider set of people, not only their professors. I think the amount of learning they do on their own when it’s got those higher stakes is really impressive.”

EarthGames represents a microcosm of the interdisciplinary expertise that is required to productively address big systems like climate change.”

To other instructors developing interdisciplinary courses, Frierson underscores the importance of flexibility. “You have to not want a certain product at the end of it,” he says, but rather allow yourself to be led by “the talent that’s in front of you.” Frierson adds that he continues to be impressed by student ability and creativity.

It was precisely the sharing of knowledge and ideas among students and professors across disciplines that shaped EarthGamesUW into an endeavor with ever-growing impact.

“In a way, EarthGames represents a microcosm of the interdisciplinary expertise that is required to productively address big systems like climate change,” says Horstman. “We will need experts who understand what it really takes to collaborate and work together to solve problems.”

And it can all begin with a step outside a building, a department, a discipline, to forge the powerful connections that make this possible.

Top Tips to “Think Beyond Your Building”: Creating Interdisciplinary Courses with Real-World Applications

  • Expand and use your network:
    • Lawler connected with Frierson when he was invited to speak at a lecture series in Frierson’s department. From there, the two pooled their connections – including external partners such as non-profits and local high schools – to “shop around” their game idea. Then they drew on connections from those people to set up a formal working group.
  • Create classroom opportunities for learning transferable skills:
    • While students may need to fulfill a project requirement, others are looking for extracurricular opportunities to learn new skills or add to their portfolio – but they still want to work on something meaningful. These experiences can also help them make their applications for scholarships, graduate school or jobs even stronger.
  • Don’t be afraid to offer enrollment to all majors
    • Open enrollment can result in a wider mix of disciplinary backgrounds than expected, but Frierson says, “You have to look at the group you have, and move in a direction based on who’s there.” For example, a student group composed of scientists and writers might build a more basic design with a “choose your own story” adventure rather than an app with elaborate visuals.
  • Make use of the resources available at a major research university (including Innovators Among Us, by UW-IT Teaching and Learning, the Center for Teaching and Learning blog and others). Check out this resource list, but don’t forget to ask your colleagues and network for recommendations:
    • The eScience Institute offers seminars, working groups, and a Data Science Studio in which researchers across disciplines share ways of fostering collaborative research with technology.
    • The Office of Global Affairs supports scholars across disciplines, institutions, and continents in service of international research, education, and outreach.
    • The Digital Future Lab at UW Bothell brings together research scientists and product designers to develop interdisciplinary projects through a commitment to “radical diversity.”
    • Academic Affairs at UW Tacoma supports teaching and learning and offers faculty multifaceted resources.