Macquarie University is developing a simulation game for postgraduate students studying biodiversity, where they will learn to explore, survey and publish data on a virtual world, using tools and skills they would employ while undertaking fieldwork in the real world.
‘New Worlds’ will allow students to feel like they are sitting in a pod with a computer screen or monitor that moves around and collects data on species, rainfall, temperature and so on. An instrument panel will also be attached to the pod for students to conduct different surveying and sampling activities.
A $20,000 grant was put towards building and testing the game, which came form the university's Innovation and Scholarship program. Programmer Nicolas Wendell was hired in April to create a synthetic world using real-world analysis and biodiversity tools that are taught at the university.
Robert Parker, educational developer at Macquarie University, is the driving force behind the creation of New Worlds. He was inspired by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace who left industrial Europe in the 19th century to go explore and observe areas that were previously unknown to them. Parker was spurred on by NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Mars and the quest to find life on a different planet.
“You have this game console, you go to this new world that we’ve created, and you start exploring it and sharing your data,” says Parker.
“Each world can have a particular simple thing that we want our students to discover. And then in the next world, which is, say, the next level in the game, they can go up to a more complex world or a world that displays features which we want our students to understand. They can explore that world and say something about it using new theories or different theories around the distribution of species and diversity.”
Before New Worlds, the university had been running a similar simulation to help students learn about surveying.
Parker participated in a workshop with one of the lecturers in the uni’s Department of Biological Sciences, Dr David Nipperess, to see if they could create a simulation of biodiversity data from the wet tropics using 20 years' worth of data from James Cook University.
Parker then attended a Game-On conference where he met the programmer of a game that caught his eye and discussed his idea with him.
“I had a chat with him and said, ‘This is what I would like to do: Grab all this biodiversity data, stored as suitability scores in raster arrays that need to be put into a geo-coded SQL database. Then put some game layers on top, put a Google map on top of it, be able to plot biodiversity surveys, and do some analysis of what species are drawn up in terms graphing the number and type of species found per unit of surveying effort.’ So students can use real-world data in a simulation.”
In the predecessor to New Worlds, students could extract and analyse data, then make judgements on incomplete data such as the path of a powerline between a dam in the hinterland and a coastal port.
“They would be given various routes to take – which route is less damaging, what are the impacts on areas? They would go and survey those areas and tell us about the biodiversity, and look at what reserve system was needed. All those issues around land management and conservation were then available to students through this simulation game,” Parker says.
The game also includes some competition in surveying performance, where the more efficient a student is at surveying and finding species, the higher his or her public ranking among other students.
In New Worlds, the game is a bit more challenging. Students have to not only think about land management, conservation issues and surveying efficiency but also think about how they would define completely unknown, new species. The game is designed to encourage students to take a collaborative approach to learning and share data with their peers when making new discoveries.
“No one knows what the names of these species are, so you would then describe the species in different ways and then you can publish that.
“Then someone else might find a species that is very similar, with similar characteristics, similar DNA, similar amino acids, etc. You can compare and contrast, you can go into another part of the game which is the library. Normally when you are in the field you are also doing research with a library or database, looking up catalogues of species and comparing.
“And then the third person to describe the species might name it after the person who first discovered it,” Parker says.
Another challenge in the game, which reflects the real world, is the limit on energy and resources. Students are given an energy budget where they have a certain amount of time to conduct their activities in their pod before they have to return to the satellite station and recharge.
The time students are spending in particular areas of a new world is also monitored in the game. A graph is displayed that gives the students feedback on how much time for the amount of species they should be spending in an area.
“The longer you stay somewhere the more species you’ll find. Eventually if you stay there long enough you’ll see most of the species that will in actual fact be in that spot. But that is very expensive, so how do you know when to leave that spot and you have enough species?” asks Parker.
“As time is graphed against the number of species found, the curve starts to flatten, then you know pretty well you have got most of the species for that location for the time spent collecting them. From the point of view of studying an area in terms of diversity, you are probably wasting money and time to stay there any longer.”
Parker says the use of games and gamification techniques in educational settings will only increase, as “the gap between the games space and the learning space is not as great as we think it is”. He says that given it's an industry worth billions of dollars every year, gaming obviously found a successful way to tap into a basic human need of exercising the mind and feeling fulfilled from mastering something.
“People are certainly doing serious learning in recreational games; they are often learning amazing amounts of information just to stay in the game. There’s an incredibly large number of games that are quite complex, and they are quite rich learning environments.
“The cognitive processes that go into playing those games are all transferable to other educational environments. If those processes and design principles for those games are put into an educational context without necessarily killing off the interest in learning the subject, you’ll find that games will proliferate into higher education over the next 10 years.”
New Worlds will be trialled with postgraduate biodiversity students in first semester of next year.
Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett
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