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John Knox

Assistant Professor (as of August 2008), Dept. of Geography, University of Georgia

What is your experience with on-line games or environments?

I teach geography and atmospheric science courses at the undergraduate level using a variety of on-line game-type environments. I use interactive Java applets created in conjunction with my introductory-level meteorology textbook, many of which are game-like in their construction and use. (While I didn't design the applets, I did have some input into some aspects of their design, and I use them in multiple classes.)

For example, I highly encourage you to visit the cow-flinging applet for learning about tornado intensity and the Fujita scale. Try it now!

The two images here are screen captures from the weather forecasting model applet which teaches an extremely advanced topic in numerical analysis [the Courant-Friedrichs-Lewy (CFL) stability condition] to undergraduates using a true-to-life numerical model of the atmosphere that is coded into the applet. The first image shows a well-behaved model simulation with a stable choice of the model's time step and grid spacing. The colors can be thought of as pressure, with the green area being a low-pressure area on a weather map. Computer Model Applet Stable

The image below shows the model with an unstable choice of time step and grid spacing. This is what meteorologists refer to as the model "blowing up." The choice of parameters has led to a numerical instability that obliterates any of the features the model was supposed to simulate.

Computer Model Applet Blow-Up

As recently as ten years ago, the CFL condition was never broached until the senior year in meteorology classes, or was even reserved for the graduate level. I didn't blow up (accidentally) a real-life numerical model until I was a post-doc. Today, we cover this subject in our introductory-level textbook in an optional box in the weather forecasting chapter, linking it with the applet. Using the applet, now any freshman English major (or, for that matter, any third grader with an Internet connection) can research this topic for themselves, interactively. And, it's fun to blow up a model!

For baseball fans, a demonstration, complete with sound of the effect of altitude and therefore friction on the distance that a baseball flies in the air. A more recent and somewhat more sophisticated applet allows users to determine for themselves what factors affects hurricane paths and intensity. With time (the limiting factor), I think we can develop an applet for most of the key topics in weather and climate.

Note that these applets aren't generally games in the sense that no score is being kept. However, with some of the applets that would be an almost trivial addition (e.g., by scoring the Fujita scale responses, or by rewarding the longest home run in the fly ball applet, etc.).

An example of a true game application: in my upper-division synoptic meteorology course this semester, I built the curriculum around participation in the national weather forecasting contest hosted by the University of Oklahoma. Each participant electronically submits a forecast each day four days a week for an entire semester for a rotating list of cities. Their forecasts are scored versus observed conditions, and then compared statistically to all forecasters' scores nationally, as well as the National Weather Service and numerical model forecasts.

This is very much a game environment similar to "fantasy" sports, in that real-life outcomes determine your score. That is, in the forecasting contest students are "playing" at being professional weather forecasters--just as in rotisserie baseball the participants are "playing" at being managers/general managers of major league teams. As an experienced fantasy baseball league GM and commissioner, I can say that the forecasting contest is even closer to real life than are rotisserie baseball leagues. More generally, it's a tried-and-true simulation-of-reality approach that also akin to the use of simulators in the training of airline pilots (I teach aviation meteorology and have used the Delta flight simulators) and in the military.

My students were so inspired by the national weather forecasting contest that during the "post-season" tournament round of the contest (top 64 forecasters nationally), they decided to emulate it with an in-class tournament of their own devising. I was inspired too; I qualified for the national contest's tournament round and was fortunate enough to make it to the Elite Eight out of more than 1,000 forecasters nationally. Before this contest, I would have guessed that my chances of being in the top half (let alone the top 8) nationally were 0.01%--this illustrates how an online game environment can inspire people to "elevate their game," just as we see in athletic competitions. I'm currently discussing with students and faculty how to make the national forecasting contest a part of our atmospheric science curriculum in the fall.

As an illustration of using pre-existing non-pedagogical software, I also use an online video game to teach about the collision-coalescence process of precipitation particle growth in my freshman-level weather and climate classes. The maker of this video game probably doesn't know anything about meteorology, but the physics that are incorporated into the game are realistic enough that the pedagogical points I want to make are embedded in the game. This is where I think the future lies: the line between games and teaching will be blurred to irrelevancy.

What do you hope to learn from the workshop experience?

I would like to learn what the state-of-the-art is in applying on-line game environments in the classroom and in college classes. My textbook co-author and I want to make the next edition of our textbook much more electronic, and the lessons learned from this workshop experience could help shape how we do that.

What specific aspects of on-line games and environments in geoscience education are you interested in discussing with other workshop participants?

1. What is available?
2. What are the best uses--when do the games work educationally and when do they not work, and why?
3. (specific to physical geography) Have there been game-like applications of Google Earth developed for use in introductory physical geography courses?
4. Where is this area heading in the next five years? Is pedagogy turning into games? Are games turning into pedagogy? How will pedagogical integrity be maintained if the balance tips over to games? Conversely, if the educators win, how will we keep student interest (since educators are notorious for making things un-fun)?

Are there leaders in this field that you would particularly like to have a chance to interact with during the workshop?

I think the most creative person in my field in the design of game-type environments is Tom Whittaker at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Tom designed the applets for our textbook, so while I don't need an excuse to interact with him, I think his insight and experience (he created the McIDAS software, a landmark software application in meteorology) would add to the event. Steve Ackerman, my textbook co-author also at Wisconsin, is very much a believer in creating online environments that are game-like and fun.

John Knox --Discussion  

Hi John-
You are doing lots! So what can you say when you compare these various approaches about what different kinds of simulations/games on different scales are good for. I've always thought that the applets build intuition that helps students put some of their real world experience to use in making sense of behavior and its mathematical descriptions -- is that what is going on? How do these kinds of approaches interplay with their ability to be better forecasters?

I think you are in a good position to help us start the list of what's going on where. What would be an easy way to capture what you know here.



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Hey John,

The applets are cool! I don't know if you have seen this article but I think it is applicable to your stuff:

Cliburn, D. C. and Miller, S. M. 2008. What makes a "good" game programming assignment?. J. Comput. Small Coll. 23, 4 (Apr. 2008), 201-207.

I think you (like Steve Reynolds) turn simulators into games. This paper discusses student views of "game assignments" and basically concludes that they like a lot of structure and like to be already familiar with the "game". How much prep do your students have before using the tornado simulator for instance?


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Hi neighbor ---

I am impressed with the way you are adapting things to teach some basic skills. Good idea !


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I really like the westher forecasting contest- a great example of a cooperative project that is absolutely connected to reality.

Am wondering with the applets if they are mapped, overlain on real systems> What does ot take for students to leap from the colored diagrams to real systems?

I am not worried about pedagogy being subsumed by games. Weather and climate change are all very relevant important things to people, and we need to tap into the concerns, interests.


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