A Cool Approach to Learning:

UW engineering professor uses a computer game to teach cryogenics

By Vanessa Eisch
Engage Staff

Pfotenhauer presenting

UW engineering professor John Pfotenhauer has lofty goals for his cryogenic engineering students.

"I wanted students to develop an expertise and that just doesn't happen in one semester," he explained to a room full of UW faculty and staff at Engage's Simulations and Games event in February.

Pfotenhauer turned to computer gaming to help his students learn about the study of very low temperatures and how materials behave at those temperatures.

"I was hoping I could use games and it could do what it did with my children. We wanted to use the game feature to engage the students and grab their attention," he says.

Pfotenhauer presenting

The idea of gaming as an instructional method isn't new. UW faculty members David Shaffer, Kurt Squire, Richard Halverson and Arizona State faculty James Gee argued in their 2005 working paper, "Video Games and the Future of Learning", that meaningful activity in virtual worlds or simulations prepares students for meaningful activity in the real world.

In other words, gaming helps novices learn how experts solve problems and achieve success. That's exactly what Pfotenhauer wanted.

He took his idea to UW's Engage Program and received Simulations & Games awards in 2006 and 2009 to help develop a computer game to teach elements of cryogenics.

With the help of senior information processing consultant Mike Litzkow, and Academic Technology consultant David Gagnon, the game "Cool It" was developed.

"David's been really great about guiding us to go after what's most fun and most interesting and it's paid off," says Pfotenhauer.

Pfotenhauer presenting

"Cool It" teaches principles of cryogenic engineering design and helps students develop an "expert" perspective and empirical understanding of the physical principles of cryogenic design.

In Pfotenhauer's game, students act as consultants for a high tech company and must solve a cryogenic problem to earn money. Students can play around with different parameters in the game by turning knobs, selecting materials and watching meters. At the end, they get feedback on their solution, including its cost-effectiveness.

"As the students play the game, they get better and better at it," says Pfotenhauer.

He says one of the game's best features is it's ability to track student learning. "Cool It" provides a record of every choice a student makes while playing the game and shows how a final solution is reached.

"It provides a real convenient assessment tool, because you can develop a story about what the student was thinking and maybe modify your game to improve the learning process," he explains.

The "Cool It" team is currently trying to identify competencies and measure where students "got it" during game play. They are now having students in China play the game to further their research.

Eventually, Pfotenhauer hopes "Cool It" will incorporate multi-level play and include thermodynamics. Right now, the game is a playable prototype currently consisting of one level focused on thermal conduction.