Thursday, April 10, 2014

Flex Your Vector Skills in the New Game Sector Vector

Some unexpected things are happening at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, MA. First-year engineering students are spending nearly three times longer in the classroom and senior industrial design students are taking an interest in physics.

Game logo.
Complements of James O'Brien,
Greg Sirokman and Derek Casio.
This is due to the ingenuity of WIT faculty members James O’Brien, assistant professor physics, Greg Sirokman, assistant professor of chemistry, and Derek Casio, assistant professor of industrial design.

The game that is engaging student learning in novel ways and bringing WIT students from different fields of study together is called Sector Vector. It is a board game that the three creators say takes learning of basic vector concepts to a fun, new level that improves the overall learning experience. The results speak for themselves.

Before James O’Brien introduced Sector Vector into his introductory engineering lectures, students were spending an average of 40 minutes in class. Afterward, they were voluntarily spending around 116 minutes in class – almost three times as long.

Also to the game’s credit was the improvement in quiz scores. O’Brien conducted a study of about 200 students, all of which completed two online vector quizzes. After taking the first quiz, half of the students played Sector Vector and the other half completed traditional vector homework assignments. Students who played Sector Vector scored on average 12 percentage points higher on their second vector quiz whereas the other students improved their scores by four percentage points.

“We’re in a school that is heavily leading toward project-based learning,” O’Brien said earlier this week in a press conference for the APS April Meeting. “[We’re] really trying to think outside of the box in terms of how you prepare lessons for the students and also how you try to inspire them to think.”

Left: Thought process board with WIT industrial design student Haiden Goggin.
Right: Design ideas board for game aesthetics. Images credited to Derek Cascio.

"The interdisciplinary aspect of what he's doing is very interesting," said Crystal Bailey, the careers program manager for the American Physical Society. "These students are not only learning concepts from different fields, but also the physics students get that interdisciplinary collaboration that probably the majority of them are going to be doing in their careers. Furthermore, they're getting exposure of the commercialization process."

Sector Vector is a work in progress, but is nearing a final product that O’Brien and his two colleagues hope to distribute in the near future to other colleges, high schools and even middle schools. The earlier children can begin thinking about how mathematics and science applies to their everyday lives, the better O'Brien said.

“My advisor in graduate school said, ‘The beautiful thing about physics is that nobody understands it until you know it all,’And that statement made no sense to me for a very very long time.

And then what I realized was that all he was really saying is your whole life you learn little bits of math and … science and people tell you that somewhere it’s all related, and it’s very hard to see that picture until you’ve seen enough of it. So, the earlier we can expose people to seeing elements of this … would be a life lesson for everybody involved,” O’Brien said.

Over the last seven months, engineering students and industrial design students have been collaborating to improve the game’s overall look, playability and impact on learning. So, it has grown to become a game that is both designed and played by students.

The rules are fairly simple: Blow up your opponent before they do the same to you. Players are grouped in teams of four, where each group member has a specific responsibility. The team is in charge of a single spacecraft, which they work together to keep in one piece while moving it across a board and firing missiles at the other team’s spacecraft.

Image of the game where you can see a spaceship and missiles on the circular board.
To the left is student Tyler Castle. In the middle is student Brianna Rozelle.
And to the right is student Annie Yonker. Credit: Derek Cascio.

Where the learning component comes in is how the team moves their spacecraft and fires the missiles. Everything is done on a coordinate system and protractors are included to measure angles of the vectors. Each turn, a team assigns a vector value to their spacecraft’s thrusters, so it moves with a certain speed and direction across the grid.

After moving their spaceship, the same team assigns a vector value to their missiles, which the opposing team must avoid come their turn. They accomplish this by choosing a vector value for their thrusters, and so on.

While the students are battling it out, they are also learning how to add and subtract vectors and decompose vectors into individual components of magnitude and direction. A skill that is crucial for any student aspiring toward a career in engineering, physics, mathematics or other related field.

“If something gets lost along the way in vectors, it becomes a big problem,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien presented the team's progress at the APS April Meeting earlier this week and will be holding a workshop on the game at the American Society of Engineering Educators conference this June where educators will have the opportunity to play.

"This could be a great tool for teaching mathematics to people who are otherwise scared of anything math-related," Bailey said.

Future designs of the game might include an online version. O'Brien said they are currently working with computer science students to make this a reality.

For more information on how other educators are using games to inspire learning check out:

University of Boulder Colorado's PhET Interactive Simulations
University of California Santa Cruz's Super Planet Crash

When O'Brien first introduced the game,
students used different colored paper clips for missiles.
Credit: Derek Cascio.

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