The Impact of Video Game Based Design Projects in Engineering Design Courses

Ranalli, J., & Ritzko, J. (2013). Assessing the impact of video game based design projects in a first year engineering design course. Frontiers in Education Conference, 2013 IEEE, (0756992), 530–534.

KerbalSpaceProgramIn Assessing the Impact of Video Game Based Design Projects in a First Year Engineering Design Course (Ranalli & Ritzko, 2013), the authors attempted to measure the effectiveness of using the popular rocket science simulation game Kerbal Space Program (KSP) as a learning exercise in the engineering design process. KSP is a recent indie game in which the player is able to design and build rockets, space structures, landers, rovers, etc, and then manually fly them in a 3D simulated world with reasonably accurate physics. Ship design, as well as the reasons for designing the ships in the first place, are open and limitless. Players can attempt to simply get a craft into orbit around their home planet, journey to a nearby moon and attempt to land on it, or even venture further out into the solar system. As a long time KSP addict myself, I can attest to the fact that the game is truly the ultimate rocket science sandbox.

The authors note that student retention of engineering coursework has been shown to be linked to their attitudes towards engineering, and that games like KSP enable students to engage in the practice of engineering without the heavy focus on math and physics common in early engineering courses. For this study, the authors worked with an Introduction to Engineering Design professor as a part of the Toys ‘n MORE project. They tasked students with the challenge of constructing and flying a space craft into orbit around their home planet’s nearby moon. The students were expected to “be able to apply a
four-step engineering design process” (p. 532) involving iterating through defining the problem, and developing, evaluating, and implementing solutions. Data was collected in the form of pre and post surveys targeting aspects of engineering self-efficacy. The results showed “gains in technology and communication self-efficacy ratings, and a decline in engineering self-efficacy” (p. 533).

This kind of study really interests me. I’ve been toying with the idea of developing a course on design principles and philosophy for high school aged students, as I feel this is an often misunderstood field of practice by students leaving high school. As the authors note, and as my own experience with KSP agrees, this game is an excellent platform to engage in rapidly iterative design, much more than any slow and sometimes expensive physical design projects. I feel the data collected here, however, isn’t very reliable. For a purely quantitative study like this, the sample size of a single class feels to small for any meaningful conclusions. I would be more interested in a study that tries to analyze the way these student discussed and communicated their process in trying to design for this challenge, rather than basing conclusions off of students’ self reported efficacy in engineering practices.

In addition to engaging in the design process, these students were also developing deeper understandings of complex systems. In designing their space crafts, they were faced with countless decisions including “the type of rocket engine to use, the amount of fuel to carry, the rocket staging arrangement. In test flights students were able to observe how their choices impacted thrust-to-weight ratio, ease of control and flight stability, and how these parameters affected their ability to achieve their design goal” (p. 532). Here we also see more and more subtle uses of design-based research philosophy. The researchers noticed that students were having trouble seeing the link between the game and engineering concepts, so they redesigned the class to explicitly address the design principles being used while playing the game. This choice informed their conclusions as well, implying that design teaching should be explicit about how design relates to the practice, not implicit simply through doing design-related things.

As I said above, I’m very interested in how projects like this could be applied in secondary education. I could see myself conducting similar research, though I’d lean more towards qualitative data collection and address the practice related discourse that games like KSP could elicit.