Northern Illinois professor brings video games to class

Coller says video games allow him to come up with assignments or tasks that are more authentic to engineering.
NIU instructor Brianno Coller says video games allow him to create assignments that are more authentic to engineering.

Brianno Coller is showing that video games have a place in the classroom. Coller, an associate professor of engineering at Northern Illinois University, realized several years ago while showing students computer-generated NASA footage from the Mars Rover landings that there might be a better way to teach content that previously had been restricted to the pages of worksheets and tests.

“Students would always be sort of on the edge of their seat watching this thing, because it’s just so cool to see how it works,” Coller said of the video. “But that sentiment ended as soon as you turned off the video, and then they’re back to their boring old homework again.”

This led Coller to imagine a simulation that allowed students to design a desired movement or action using the required formulas and algorithms that apply to all types of engineering. In his mind, this would allow students to do the necessary work and to see firsthand the success or failure of that work.

“I realized that what I was thinking about and talking about, in my head at least, was a video game,” Coller said. “So I got the idea to try to make a video game that I could fit within these courses.”

Five years later, he has done just that. After first introducing his video game idea in spring 2005, Coller’s education technology has found itself at the forefront of the curriculum in two engineering classes: Dynamic Systems and Control, and Computational Methods. While the game is used to a lesser extent in two other courses, these two classes use the game for everything from regular section assignments to the final exam.

In one game, students are required to complete the applicable formulas and algorithms to successfully steer a video game car around an oval track. Students must consider rate of speed, geometrical calculations, and all manner of mathematical information to do this.

“Right away, they just really warmed up to it,” Coller said. “They were incredibly jazzed about it. So right away, I saw the learning levels were just so much higher and excitement levels were just so much higher than anything I had done before.”

The National Science Foundation supported and provided funding for Coller’s video games, and the agency recently announced another grant to expand the video game curriculum to new engineering classes.

Coller says part of the reason he thinks video games work so well is that the format allows him to come up with assignments or tasks that are more authentic to the field of engineering than what students would find in typical textbooks.

“These projects are very open-ended, meaning that I’m not going to tell [students] everything they need to know,” Coller said. “They have to go find stuff, and they have to put things together. There’s no one right answer, … so different students can get to a solution in different ways, and that’s what real engineering is like.”

For senior engineering students Justin Briggs, Mike Guinta, and Chris Chika, Coller’s video game curriculum is a welcome alternative to conventional learning techniques. Briggs likes how much easier the video game makes it to visualize the concepts they work with in class.

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