Idaho Teacher Uses Computer Video Games to Teach Science


(TNS) — Mutating aliens. Strategic airstrikes. Tower defense.

Most high schools do not use a video game to teach science. But this is how Jonathan Schaper teaches ninth-grade earth science in Lewiston.

Project Hastur is the second game from Polymorphic Games based at the University of Idaho. The video game combines tower defense with evolutionary mutants to create a challenging game and an educational experience.

“Many high schoolers have a preconceived notion that a scientist is someone in a white lab coat. Many of my students have an interest in science but do not see how they can pursue it. Project Hastur shows students you can be a business major, a music major or a graphic designer and still be involved in science,” Schaper said in an interview with the Idaho Statesman.

Barrie Robinson and Terence Soule, professors at the University of Idaho in biological sciences and computer science, respectively, created the interdisciplinary video game with teams of undergraduate students in diverse degree programs.

“I grew up playing video games, and I still do. I started playing tower defense games and thought it would be neat if these opponents could evolve because I teach evolution,” Robinson said. “I went to Terence’s office to propose the idea of evolutionary game mechanics. The next day he came to my office and said ‘like this?’ He had created a prototype overnight.”

About Project Hastur

In Project Hastur, players defend a turret against onslaughts of alien Proteans, which evolve using biologically accurate models of evolution.

“The Proteans are the opponents against the player and they evolve. Each Protean has its own DNA, or a series of values that affect different traits like how fast it runs, what color it is and how it behaves,” Soule said.

The game operates in waves. At the end of each wave some of the Proteans evolve to be more challenging for the player.

“Biologically speaking, each wave is a generation. At the end of the wave, the Protean that does the most damage to the player gets to evolve and pass its genes onto the next generation,” Soule said. “So if a tougher Protean does more damage to you, then you will likely see it in the next round.”

In addition to selection, the Proteans also undergo random mutation. Just like in real life, random mutations are essential to evolution. Random mutations can make bacteria resistant to antibiotics; similarly, random mutations in Proteans can increase their resistance or increase their ability to attack the host player.

“The idea is that players who want to do well and beat the game need to understand how the game works in an evolutionary context,” Soule said. “So the idea is that the players are motivated to understand evolution in order to win.”

Project Hastur in the classroom

Teachers in high school and college have used Project Hastur as an educational tool throughout Idaho.

“Teachers can use this game in a classroom and create a lesson around it. For example, you can take all of the DNA of the creatures and look at which genes evolve and how that changes game play outcomes. Evolution as entertainment and education,” Soule said.

Robinson uses the game in his University of Idaho evolutionary biology class to conduct experiments with the evolutionary parameters.

“There is no silver bullet for education, but video games are one tool in the tool box,” Robinson said. “Video games can engage students that are difficult to engage.”

Earth science is the first science class for many high school students. Schaper uses Project Hastur with his students to introduce them to the scientific method and the scientific community.

“As an earth science teacher I found application for it in my classroom, using it to help teach the scientific method, to demonstrate different scientific models, analyze and interpret data, and to show the collaboration science can have with other fields,” Schaper said. “The fact that it is a collaboration between different majors interested my students. I could see it being used in other classrooms just as effectively.”

According to Schaper, high school students like to play video games, so using one as an educational tool puts them in a more familiar environment.

“The students don’t see it as school, but they are learning,” Schaper said. “Project Hastur captivated the students. Some of my students are interested in arts or music, not science. But this game has arts, music, technology and science in it. All of my students realized ‘there’s something I’m passionate about being used in this game’ and that is a motivating realization.”

Today’s students in K-12 classrooms rely on technology as educational tools — using tablets, computers and models to research and answer diverse questions. Adding educational video games could be the next curriculum.

“When we take it to schools, the students leave with smiles,” Robinson said. “But what is my competition, a textbook? I will always win. But no one will pick up an evolutionary game instead of Call of Duty.”

Project Hastur is available on the gaming platform Steam. It was released in May and has sold more than 400 copies.

©2019 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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