“I Built This and It’s Working”: In Discovery Pier Students Learn Physics by Designing Their Own Roller Coasters
10.19.10 | The experience of designing something like a roller coaster to work inside a video game can be thrilling, game designer Josh Hughes told Spotlight— like a physics experiment come to life.
“You work for hours on something like a coaster and finally get to see it work,” he said. “It’s such an amazing experiment.”
Hughes wanted to share that thrill with students.
Discovery Pier, which recently won a Game Changers Award for a new and creative game play experience that leverages principles of science, technology, engineering and math, takes players inside a virtual amusement park. The award was part of the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Competition.
Players receive in-game lessons that teach the principles of physics and engineering involved in each ride and simple computer programming techniques. Players can then use what they have learned to design and build their own fully rendered, animated amusement park rides.
“At first they see these really cool rides and coasters, and then they wonder how it happened,” Hughes said. “And I take them through, break it down step by step, and at the end, teach them how to do it.
“They can go off on their own, go into create mode, and then make something and get that reaction like, ‘Oh my god, I built this and it’s working.’”
Hughes learned the power of gaming to bring academic content to life early on. He remembers being bored by introductory biology in high school. But the game “Parasite Eve,” which came out just as Hughes was learning about mitochondria, peaked his interest. The game went into deep explanations of mitochondria as part of its story line.
“I saw how something that’s kind of boring in a text book could be repurposed and made exciting,” he said. “You have a little bit of fantasy overlapping with a little bit of reality to make something that’s really riveting.”
Hughes believes in the power of games to give students an opportunity to use what they are learning. Gamers, Hughes says, are a lot smarter than people think. Online games often contain references to historical and scientific movements and teach players about different views of the world.
“You’re not just learning something and then regurgitating it,” he said. “For instance, you’re learning about the history behind French wheel design that puts wheels above and below a fixed track. And you’re not just learning it so you can see a picture and recognize it. Your learning it so you can build your own thing that actively uses this knowledge.”
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