By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Irvine, Ca, November 19th, 2013 -- When a group of UC Irvine students began creating a mobile game to teach children the mechanisms of human digestion, they never imagined how much the kids would ultimately teach them.They also had no way of knowing the widespread reverberations their experiences would generate.
Dubbed “Down with Food,” the project was created under the auspices of the Multidisciplinary Design Program. Offered by UCI’s Calit2 and Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, MDP brings together students and faculty mentors from multiple disciplines to create and design a project.
The effort began in 2011, during MDP’s inaugural year. Cathy Tran, a graduate student in the School of Education, was registering for winter quarter and decided to include a drawing class as a creative outlet. Her somewhat skeptical graduate advisor, AnneMarie Conley, forwarded the MDP call for projects to Tran: “How about instead of taking an art class, you develop a mobile app?” Conley asked.
With a master’s degree in educational technology from Harvard, as well as several years of experience in educational television and software, Tran is interested in understanding how kids choose what they want to learn – “bringing the way kids approach games – whatever motivates them – into teaching them more serious topics like science and math.”
She jumped at Conley’s offer, seeing an opportunity to delve deeper into her research while simultaneously indulging her craving to “make something.”
So she and fellow grad student Katerina Schenke – both are in the School of Education’s Learning, Cognition and Development program – assembled a multidisciplinary team that included undergraduate students majoring in digital art, English, global cultures, psychology, informatics and computer science. The goal: to design an educational game that would be fun to play.
“We bounced around a few different game topics and the group story-boarded a few things,” says Conley, education assistant professor and one of the group’s faculty mentors. “But ‘Down with Food’ was a perfect example of what was good about games and what was hard to learn about science, and putting the two together. I think that’s why this one worked.”
The team decided to structure its effort as a series of mini-games, one for each organ involved in the digestion process. They began with the small intestine, and from the start, the process was fraught with challenge. Ideas put forth by the game designers often elicited groans from those in education and psychology. Educational concepts proffered to the group were sometimes dismissed by the designers.
“Researchers on the one side are interested in making sure all the facts are correct, while some of the designers are saying, ‘No, the game design is more important so children will want to play [it],’” says Christine Bediones, an undergraduate majoring in English and global cultures who has been on the team since the start. “Our project is trying to reconcile the two different, often opposing views between education and fun.”
But it was after a prototype for the fledgling game finally was designed and tested on its target audience – children from ages 7-12 – that the real dilemmas began to surface.
In an effort to make learning fun, the team employed what’s known in game parlance as a “tower defense” approach. This schema involves building and defending towers by “shooting” at waves of oncoming enemies.
From interviewing children prior to the design phase, the team knew that tower defense games were extremely popular; because kids were already familiar with the strategies, they decided it was a good fit for their effort.
In the “Down with Food” prototype, players build towers with nutrients – fats, proteins and carbohydrates, for example – and “shoot” different-colored enzymes at the food particles in order to break them down as they travel through the small intestine. The goal is to teach children that particular enzymes break down particular types of food, and once broken down, the nutrients are absorbed into the fingerlike projections of the small intestine called villi.
“We wanted to create a game that was fun, challenging and educational but we realized we were assuming a certain level of knowledge. So we went directly to the experts – the kids themselves – to see whether the desired outcomes were actually occurring,” Bediones says.
Unfortunately, they weren’t. Instead of understanding the process of shooting enzymes into the food particles as a positive action that aids digestion, the kids saw the food as an “enemy” that the body was attacking.
Even more alarming to the developers, some of the children equated the blasting enzymes with buckets of water dousing the food. One child characterized it as “washing poop.”
“We thought, ‘Oh no, this is a disaster!’” Bediones recalls.
“It’s ironic,” she sighs. “We chose this way of playing because it’s popular, but because it’s popular, the kids ended up having preconceived notions.”
The student researchers set about making changes. They began developing an enzyme mini-game that they hope will further clarify the process for the children. They are working on sound effects that will convey a positive tone as the enzymes break down food. They are adding tower upgrades, additional difficulty levels and unlockable features to keep the kids interested in learning.
And in a classic case of turning lemons into lemonade, they wrote and submitted a paper about their eye-opening experiences, which was accepted at a major research and design conference. Authors Bediones and Camille Macalinao presented “Are We Washing Poop? Unintended Consequences in Educational Game Design,” in June at the Games+Learning+Society 9.0 conference in Madison, Wis.
They brought down the house, according to Conley, who flew to Madison to hear her charges. “There were 30 rows behind me, packed,” she says. “People were standing along the walls, sitting on the floor; there was no room left.
“These girls were phenomenal. The team had more people [rooting for them] than the academics who have been at this for a couple of decades.”
Moreover, two of the three lead authors were undergraduates, a rare feat in the world of academia. “It's almost unheard of for undergraduates to have papers accepted at this conference,” Conley says. They even snagged one of the most competitive slots: the conference’s “Hall of Failure,” described as a place for “ideas that should have worked but didn’t, presented by the forward-thinking people who dared to try.”
Now in its third year as an MDP project, “Down with Food” continues its upward evolution. New faces replace those who have graduated, progress on the game continues at a steady pace and the team’s enthusiasm for its work is palpable.
Future plans include more user testing, formation of a children’s advisory board, expansion from iPad to Android and Web platforms, and applications for additional funding to conduct more game-based research.
And, like enzymes after a food fest, success stories are multiplying.
Project participants Katerina Schenke and Neil Young presented the research in August at the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) conference in Munich, Germany. A demonstration session attracted overwhelming attention, says Schenke. “Lots and lots of people were interested in the game and some even asked if it was available on the App Store. I am still shocked at how many people showed interest in what we are doing!”
workingexamples.org, a well-known Web site at the intersection of education and technology, wrote a feature article about the team. And several of the students have parlayed their experiences into paid internships and jobs in mobile apps, education and game design.
June graduate Camille Macalinao is a paid intern at Calaborate, Inc., a startup mobile app company in Santa Monica, where she is responsible for quality assurance testing, market and application research, and competitive analysis.
“The opportunities I experienced and skills I learned have helped me grow as a researcher and given me the inspiration to continue working in a similar environment, one that is fun and motivating,” she says.
Computer science alumnus James Gamboa graduated in 2012 and immediately went to work for the MIND Research Institute as a software engineer. “He had a full-time offer before he left school; he’s just that good,” Conley raves. Gamboa, who is developing iPad versions of an educational math game, says of “Down with Food”: “This project created an environment that encourages its members to become innovators. It challenged us to create a solution to [a] problem with the resources we had available.”
Kenny Fernandez was part of the original “Down with Food” team, designing the game’s main character and most of layout. He graduated in June and worked over the summer for WGBH in Boston as an intern on the Next Generation Preschool Math project, where he won rave reviews from his supervisor.
“He is like a miracle worker,” Jillian Orr wrote in an email to Cathy Tran in early August. “One of the best interns I’ve ever had (and I’ve had superb interns)…. Thank you so much for passing him my way!”
Conley says these achievements are no coincidence. “These kids, from their experience working together on this team, know how to talk to people and they know what matters. They work hard and they are committed,” she says. “That’s what college is supposed to be about; it's rare to see it as clearly as I do with these MDP kids, and it’s phenomenal.”