Researchers to develop virtual reality game that teaches math skills

Fengfeng Ke, an assistant professor in FSU's Educational Psychology and Learning Systems department.

Rebuilding a city from the ground up requires math skills, knowledge of architectural design, common sense and an appreciation for what residents need and want from their city. It can also be fun.

Florida State University College of Education’s Fengfeng Ke, an assistant professor in the Educational Psychology and Learning Systems department, is creating a computer game called Earthquake Rebuild that encourages creativity in design and uses architecture to teach geometry and other math skills. Ke and her team of fellow educators have been awarded a $549,937 National Science Foundation grant to support the creation of this game-based learning platform.

The game will be designed for middle-school students. Players are tasked with rebuilding a virtual village following an earthquake. Earthquake Rebuild will be similar to the popular commercial game Minecraft, a Lego-like computer game about breaking and placing blocks. Earthquake Rebuild takes this idea further, Ke said.

“We want to simulate the real world more than Minecraft’s been doing,” she said.

When rebuilding, Earthquake Rebuild players will consider architectural principles like symmetry and balance. They can make artistic choices about color. They will have to budget their virtual finances. And they can consider the culture and values of their city. While the initial test game episode is set in Japan, Ke wants the game to be customizable so players can rebuild virtual cities around the world.

This autonomy gives players a sense of ownership and cultivates creativity, Ke said.

“We’re trying to encourage authenticity and real-world design.”

This is a game about an architect’s daily life, she added, pointing to a rebuilding project in New Zealand as inspiration. In 2011, a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand. In an effort to jumpstart the economy after the quake, local architects created a “pop-up mall” out of more than 60 shipping containers. The Re: START pop-up mall was meant to be temporary, but due to its popularity and interesting, sustainable design, may stick around.

“This is a real-life issue,” Ke said of rebuilding. Like real life, there are stories behind creation. Earthquake Rebuild will appeal to learners who enjoy a storyline, she said.

Ke wants the game to be enjoyable for different sorts of game players, even those who don’t enjoy Legos. But, she said, having fun doesn’t mean hiding the fact players are also learning. There is a belief that educational games should mask the act of learning to attract children to the game, Ke said. She believes children are smarter than that idea allows.

“They can definitely smell the math,” especially after playing for a few hours, she said. Ke doesn’t want to hide the learning process from children.

“This game-based learning platform aims to help them discover the intrinsic value and ‘hard fun’ of doing math,” she said.

Her game targets middle-schoolers because that period of time is crucial when it comes to learning math. Data shows that during those years, students motivated to learn and with a passion for math can lose interest if not engaged, Ke said.

Ke will work alongside Valerie Shute, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems; Gordon Erlebacher in the Department of Scientific Computing; Senior Research Scientist Matthew Ventura; and Kathleen Clark, associate professor in the School of Teacher Education in the College of Education.

The three-year NSF grant ends July 2016. The project is divided into three phases: In the first year, the team will create a project prototype and bring in groups of children and educators to test the game. In the second year Earthquake Rebuild will be refined and made functional. And in the third year, the game will be distributed to more people who can play and test it.

The finished Earthquake Rebuild will be an open source game, available at no cost to anyone who wants to play.

The game is also a research project, Ke said. Everything a gamer does during testing — choosing a tool, dragging and dropping a block — will be recorded to determine how children are learning and what game features will better promote learning.

“A lot of kids don’t realize math is everywhere,” Ke said. “Architecture can encourage them to think about what math is. It’s not just formulas.”