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The Northeastern team that received a $498,803 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to assess next generation learning through computer-facilitated networked play

Northeastern University Receives Grant to Raise Environmental Awareness with Computer Simulation Game

10/29/07

Northeastern University has received a $498,803 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to assess next generation learning through computer-facilitated networked play. The project focuses on a cooperative interdisciplinary computer game, Shortfall Online, developed by faculty and staff from the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and the Department of Visual Arts and Multimedia Studies.

In an effort to encourage learning and cater to the needs of technologically savvy students, the project will bring the growing concerns of environmental awareness and diverse learning styles together in an innovative learning model aimed at educating future engineering leaders.

“This grant demonstrates our passion and commitment to the idea of raising environmental awareness,” said Jacqueline Isaacs, Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University. As the principal investigator of the project, Isaacs, along with co-PIs Thomas Cullinane, James Benneyan and Donna Qualters, have worked as a team on a prototype game that led to the grant.

Over the course of the next three years, Northeastern’s cross-disciplinary team of engineers, game designers and educational assessors will explore the extent to which students increase their understanding of complex tradeoffs among environmental, economic and technological issues in the auto industry through repeated play of Shortfall Online. The team-oriented computer simulation of an automobile supply chain engages students as the decision-makers in the design, civic and business implications of caring for our environment.

“Students today are raised in a different context in our society,” Isaacs said. “They are learning in a different way and games like Shortfall might be more effective teaching tools.”'

Working with the Northeastern team is the staff of Metaversal Studios, a company specializing in the design of educational games and simulations. Metaversal’s lead game designer, Jay Laird, recently appointed Assistant Director of Game Design Programs at Northeastern University, said that the NSF grant provides the underpinnings for interactive multimedia games to infiltrate more content areas besides that of environmental engineering in hopes that students engaged in other disciplines will learn to communicate more effectively and continue to learn in a variety of ways.

“We’re developing ways of assessing systemic learning,” Laird said.  “We’re trying to understand how students think.”

Laird and Isaacs hope to network and further disseminate the game in such a way that would allow students to play across collegiate networks. In fact, Isaacs plans to test Shortfall’s educational benefits at universities such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, MIT, Georgia Tech and UMass-Lowell.

Laird said the majority of game development will take place in the first of the three-year project, while the balance of testing and iterative development will occur in year two. But the most ambitious part of the project involves creating the technology to allow users to upload realistic current events that affect decision-making and reflect the changing automotive market and natural world.

In what is an example of Northeastern’s use of innovative, human-computer interaction to develop and expand knowledge in a specific field, Laird said games such as Shortfall supplement more traditional means of teaching.

“There’s a new generation of students and professors who are more responsive to different styles of learning,” Laird said.