Working on a sci­ence fair project with his lab partner Nikki, Harold Big­gums finds him­self trans­formed into a tiny super­hero and flung into the midst of an alien plot to take over the world — a plot that he and Nikki can foil only by defying gravity, walking on water and charging across elec­tric fields.

This nar­ra­tive dilemma is the basic sto­ry­line for Geck­oman!, an online video game devel­oped by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity researchers at the Center for High-​​rate Nanoman­u­fac­turing (CHN), which seeks to edu­cate middle-​​school stu­dents about nanoscience and technology.

CHN director Ahmed Bus­naina and asso­ciate director Jacque­line Isaacs led an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of edu­ca­tors and game designers to develop the game, which is avail­able in Eng­lish and Spanish.

Geck­oman! is both engaging and chal­lenging, and along the way, stu­dents pick up a lot of nanoscience fun­da­men­tals,” said Bus­naina, the William Lin­coln Smith Pro­fessor of Mechan­ical and Indus­trial Engi­neering at Northeastern.

We had excel­lent teachers working with us to develop four lesson plans that guide stu­dent learning,” said Isaacs, a pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Mechan­ical and Indus­trial Engi­neering. “The results of stu­dent play tests indi­cate that stu­dents are learning new concepts.”

Game players follow Harold on an adven­turous journey, after he has been shrunk to the nanoscale fol­lowing an explo­sion in his lab­o­ra­tory. Players must nav­i­gate Harold through var­ious levels across three dif­ferent worlds, while also col­lecting scat­tered note­book pages that pro­vide nanoscience tips to help him progress.

The game was cre­ated with funding help from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion; and 15 Days LLC, a com­pany founded by North­eastern alumni and fac­ulty, col­lab­o­rated with CHN fac­ulty on design. Staff mem­bers at Boston’s Museum of Sci­ence helped match the game con­tent to national and Mass­a­chu­setts K-​​12 sci­ence standards.

How did the game get its name? Early in the game devel­op­ment process, the team worked on incor­po­rating a key con­cept in nanoscience — the “van der Waals” adhe­sion force, which dom­i­nates other forces at the nanoscale. In fact, it is this force that enables geckos to run up walls; the pads of their feet have mil­lions of nanoscale exten­sions. The game devel­opers decided that Harold would have to become Geck­oman, enabling him to move with greater ease between all the unusual sur­faces he must nav­i­gate in addressing the game’s multi-​​level challenges.

CHN, a National Sci­ence Foundation-​​funded Nanoscale Sci­ence and Engi­neering Center, is based at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, with part­ners including the Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts at Lowell, the Uni­ver­sity of New Hamp­shire, Michigan State Uni­ver­sity and the Museum of Sci­ence, Boston.