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For NIU duo, video games not only fun but also learning aids

Published: Thursday, June 20, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

DeKALB – For Aline Click and Brianno Coller, video games are not distractions. Instead, they are learning opportunities to the Northern Illinois University teachers.

“Young cubs play, children play, we learn by playing,” said Click, the director of NIU’s eLearning Services and the Digital Convergence Lab. “Playing is problem-solving, reading, spatial reasoning. But we also teach kids how to play video games.”

The two NIU professionals shared their insights into how video games can improve learning as a part of the NIU STEM Cafe series. The series presents topics in science, technology, engineering and math to adults outside of a classroom setting.

Click and Coller walked the audience at Eduardo’s, 214 E. Lincoln Highway, through the kind of games they have made for NIU students. 

Coller, a mechanical engineering professor, showed off “Spumone,” a game he made to help students learn the physics of mechanical engineering. Coller said he found a lot of his students were turned off by the examples and work in the class’s textbooks.

“That’s not how engineers think and work,” said Coller, referring to examples in a problem. “When you’re designing an airplane, there is no answer in the back of the book…They’re behaving, valuing like engineers do.”

In “Spumone,” students need to guide a vehicle to a particular destination while dodging obstacles. Coller said players are forced to calculate their movements, as certain values in the game change between each turn, ensuring they cannot progress through trial and error.

As the technology improved for video games, so did the games Click and her colleagues have churned out. When Click was first introduced to “Second Life,” she used the game engine to develop a digital representation of the NIU campus.

“We can do that with really interesting things in our online courses like simulations and games,” Click said.

Students involved with the Digital Convergence Lab made a game called “Picodroid: Science in Motion,” which uses the Xbox Kinect camera to teach middle school students about science.

Click said the lab operates different video game camps that students of different ages can get involved with. 

Both Coller and Click described the process as “hard fun,” noting that while video games are fun to play, they can be hard to build. 

Coller said it takes him about three weeks to design a level his students will later play. Click said middle school-students will sometimes be discouraged by the hard work that goes into creating a game, but game designers at the camp have to play games as well. 

“If you haven’t played a game, it’s really hard to visualize a game,” Click said.

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