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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SEPTEMBER  2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 1
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Gaming the Curriculum
By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

ENGINEERING EDUCATION MUST CONNECT BETTER WITH TODAY’S COMPUTER GENERATION.

ENGINEERING EDUCATION MUST CONNECT BETTER WITH TODAY’S COMPUTER GENERATION.It used to be that engineering students grew up fixing bicycles, building things, and hanging out with their friends. But these kinds of experiences have gone the way of the slide rule for many students today. Grand Theft Auto is as hands-on as many of them get, and instant messaging is their communication mode of choice. In their book Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever, authors John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade refer to this generation as “gamers” because as teenagers, many played electronic games 20-plus hours a week. If entertainment is how this group learns, perhaps we have to find new ways to connect with them.

But first we have to understand them. Reality is simplified for gamers, and becoming an expert is relatively easy. Computer games focus on problem solving and the rapid acquisition of technical skills. The problem is that games always have answers. There is little need to read manuals because trial and error is faster and one can always turn to the Internet for help. The range of options is far greater than in the real world, feedback is rapid, and consequences can be severe. If you’re wrong, you may be shot out of the sky. But not to worry, it is easy to simply hit reset and start all over.

We agree with Beck and Wade that the thousands of hours spent playing games must have an effect on how gamers think and learn. This video generation has developed intuitive computer skills, and they keep punching keys until they find the solution. Their favorite learning style is essentially inductive learning without formal instruction. They are accustomed to learning small bits delivered just-in-time with almost immediate feedback. They are hands-on, interactive learners who think doing is more fun than studying.

But how do these differences affect teaching? It may be harder for students to connect with their professors or, for that matter, to even understand what they’re talking about. And what professors think should be a relatively easy task, such as manipulating mechanical objects, students may find difficult. The curriculum needs to focus more on hands-on activities, particularly with first-year students, and concentrate less on training in computer applications and programming. Engineering professors may need to add games that teach fundamentals to their teaching repertoire.

Modern engineering practice includes heavy use of commercial simulators. This plays into the strengths of current students who are used to learning to play games with little formal instruction. However, gamers sometimes appear more knowledgeable than they really are, and live help has to be available.

We can use our knowledge of these differences to help students learn more efficiently, which will provide time to focus extra attention where students need help most.

Phillip Wankat is director of undergraduate degree programs in the department of engineering education and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue’s chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at purdue@asee.org.

 

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REFRACTIONS: Discarding the Library  - By Henry Petroski
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A NEW (VIRTUAL) CHAPTER - Getting students to use digital libraries - By Jo Ellen Myers Sharp
TEACHING: Gaming the Curriculum  - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
ON CAMPUS: Doing Time - By Lynne Shallcross
BOOK REVIEW:  War in the Sky - By Justin Ewers
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