When Professor Angelique Louie needed some help with her online course “Introduction to Research,” she enlisted a little help from experts such as science fiction author H.G. Wells, biochemist Rosalind Franklin and poet Alexander Pushkin.
Well, sort of. Wells, Franklin and Pushkin are among the “nonplayer characters” who inhabit an online game developed to accompany Louie’s course, developed by students from UC Davis’ Game Development and Arts Club.
“Introduction to Research,” BIM 088V, is an exclusively online class taught by Louie, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UC Davis, for the University of California’s Cross Campus Enrollment program. The class was first offered in spring quarter 2018 and enrolled about 125 students, one-fifth of them from outside UC Davis.
The course is intended to introduce undergraduates, especially “first generation” students with no family experience in higher education to draw on, to the ways they could conduct research with a faculty mentor. They explore their interests, practice composing letters to professors applying for a position on a research project, and learn about ethics, integrity and social impact.
The accompanying game, “Re: Search, A Campus Story” is intended to engage students and draw them in while reinforcing key points from each week’s work, Louie said. There are nine game levels, with a new level unlocking after each week’s class.
Club members are game hobbyists
The Game Development and Arts Club is made up of students with a hobby interest in building games. Club members have collaborated with professors before, but this was their biggest project yet, said lead programmer William Chilcote, majoring in civil engineering. The team included four programmers, an artist, a composer and a writer, and they worked on it for about a year before the course launched.
Students play a version of themselves in the game. Their avatar is assigned to learn and write a report about six historic researchers. Exploring campus, they find a time machine in an abandoned laboratory (as you do) and set off through time to meet their research subjects. Later in the game, they lose the time machine and enlist the help of H.G. Wells to find it and get back to the present.
Selecting the characters and developing the story took a long time, said project manager and game designer Bayan Mashat, majoring in computer science.
“We had to ensure diversity, represent different majors and we needed characters who would support the learning objectives of the course,” she said. Finally, a little deadline pressure helped nail down their decisions.
“We might tweak the story for next time, depending on the feedback we’ve got,” Mashat said. “Part of the challenge is balancing fun and education.”
“They did a phenomenal job,” Louie said. Feedback from students for the first run of the course has been overwhelmingly positive, she said.
Development of the game was supported by a grant from the UC Office of the President’s Innovative Learning Technology Initiative. Louie will teach BIM 088V “Introduction to Research” again in winter 2019 and plans to offer it annually.