InTrans / Apr 03, 2015

How the video game ‘DAVinCI Flight’ is helping schools reach STEM education goals

Go! Magazine

Davinci flightposted on April 3, 2015

Have you ever wished that instead of textbooks you could learn through something more interactive? What if you could learn about Newton’s three laws, the quadratic equation, and kinematics while playing a video game? Sounds too good to be true, right?

The creators of the Design of Aerospace Vehicles for in Classroom Interaction (DAVinCI) Flight have worked to create a game to do just that. The game introduces engineering concepts that can be used by students; parents; gamers; hobbyists; and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) educators for both leisure and educational purposes.

To help us learn more, I met with Dr. Christopher Whitmer and his colleague Sheldon Kunkel.

A conversation with Senior Project Engineers, Dr. Christopher Whitmer and Sheldon Kunkel

Can you talk a little bit about your history and the background of DAVinCI Flight?

Christopher: We work at a company called VSI Aerospace Inc., based in Ames, Iowa. We are a small company that does aerospace-related research and design work with different government customers. We have done several projects for the United States Department of Defense and Navy and even NASA. Due to the nature of our work, we have developed a lot of useful software tools.

Our company has been looking for ways to use these tools commercially, and we thought breaking into education would be a natural fit.

The earliest concept for what would later become “DAVinCI Flight” was a STEM tool for hobbyists, high school students, and undergraduates to help them learn design. Then we had the opportunity to apply for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. So we applied for the grant and modified the concept to become a game that would use all of our design software tools. We received the grant award and DAVinCI Flight was born. That was two years ago. Right now we are about to release DAVinCI Flight commercially. Our development team currently consists of four people: Sheldon, Eric Ensey, our artist, and myself, but in the past we’ve had student interns and teachers helping us out during the summer as well.

What is the game’s ultimate objective?

Christopher: The ultimate objective of the game is to inject engineering concepts into STEM education at both the middle school and high school levels. When we were designing DAVinCI Flight, we wanted to support mathematics topics already present in the Common Core, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and Iowa science standards. So, the game uses engineering design and modeling to bring together math and science concepts to engage students in the learning process.

These standards prominently involve engineering and engineering concepts. The problem is that most teachers, grade school level to high school, don’t have a lot of experience with engineering principles. This game helps inject engineering concepts into the classroom in perhaps an easier way.

What sparked the idea for DAVinCI Flight?

Christopher: I wanted to do something to improve STEM education to get more kids and teens to pursue STEM-related careers. I thought it would be great to create a design environment that kids, hobby groups, and clubs could use. Before the NSF grant, we decided to start developing prototypes.

We started with the idea for a flight simulator that used plane designs the player created in the game. Then we started building all the tools we would need to make that happen. From the start, we realized that we wanted to integrate designs in the game with 3D printing so players could print, construct, and fly their designs in the real world. Because of this, we couldn’t use off-the-shelf software or fake game physics. Our goal was for players to be fully integrated into a real plane-design process. We added realistic components to the game (propellers, engines, batteries) that are the same as those you could actually buy when constructing a glider. At every point in the game, we added realism so players felt like they are were actually building the gliders and planes. This makes it a lot more powerful as an educational tool than any game would be.

What would someone be able to do if they mastered this game?

Sheldon: By mastering the game, you’re doing a lot of things. To play through all the components inside the game, you have to learn how to use math and science to decide whether designs are good or bad. This is very important in any engineering-related career. Also, you would learn engineering modeling, which we feel is missing in many current engineering initiatives. Modeling is often loosely addressed in current curriculums, but it is the most important medium for connecting STEM concepts together. Often students are asked to just tinker and build instead of focusing on the most powerful learning aspects of engineering design.

Christopher: We’ve made this game with the cross-disciplinary power of engineering in mind. We’ve structured DAVinCI Flight so that there are different levels to the game. We’ve implemented educational modules tied to seventh grade, eighth grade, and high school physics, algebra, chemistry, and other hard sciences. Mastering the game means mastering and using these important math and science concepts, learning how to do engineering design and how to work with others and communicate, and ultimately using all of these skills to build planes and gliders that can beat the game.

So are there different versions of the game for different grade levels?

Sheldon: There aren’t different versions of the game. Instead, the teacher selects a certain module or set of modules related to a topic. For example, you could do a module that includes making a glider according to Newton’s Laws or describing a gliders’ drag with the quadratic formula.

Who do you anticipate will be the audience for DAVinCI Flight?

Christopher: Right now we are focusing on the educational market for classroom use. We think it would be helpful for any 7-12th grade math and science classroom. It’s also good for individual users like parents, kids, and hobbyists. We also think there are a lot of opportunities to use DAVinCI Flight in extracurricular projects and at afterschool clubs.

How much does the game cost, including the 3D printer?

Christopher: The beta version of the game is free. Once commercially released, we are thinking the price will be around $25-35 for the game, and 3D printers have a wide price range from $500-250,000. Schools that we have worked with already have printers in the $5000-6000 range. A lot of schools have 3D printers, but the problem is they don’t have good uses for them. This game would be a great educational use of the 3D printers.

Sheldon: However, 3D printers are not necessary to play DAVinCI Flight. It is the last feature to close the learning experience loop. It would create a more rich experience for students if there was one, but is not required.

Any grants to help schools/teachers?

Christopher: Since we are just now releasing our first commercial version of DAVinCI Flight, unfortunately no. However, we have tried to keep the cost of the software low to help teachers use it in their classrooms. We are planning to apply to be a part of the STEM Scale-Up program. Since we are fairly new, we need a track record first. However, a free trial game is currently available on our website for anyone to try out.

Have you had any difficulty implementing this into classrooms given the notions behind video games?

Sheldon: We’ve had the standard user-feedback issues that always happen when you start beta testing. A month ago we did a test in a few West Des Moines schools as well as in other school districts. We had about 300 or 400 eighth grade students test the game, which was really great because, in an authentic setting, we got to see what was working and what still needed improvement. We were really happy with the results.

Christopher: We are currently working with teachers to get DAVinCI Flight in classrooms around the state and trying to arrange test-runs with some gifted students here in Ames. We have had some students download and use it and some teachers interacting with it at a beta level. Right now we are trying to see how much hand-holding is needed. We are also trying to make sure the game is fully playable in a 20-25 minute time constraint so it can be used easily in a classroom. However, we are still tweaking the ”˜help’ and ”˜presentation’ setups and have tutorials online that should also help teachers and students.

Does this game involve any violence?

Sheldon: None! We have gone to great lengths to avoid it. Kids have given us feedback to incorporate some violent components, such as dog fights, but we have refused. We knew the game would be in schools, so we wanted to avoid violence completely. The only, somewhat, extreme characteristic is that your glider explodes if you crash. But the game involves no people, so you watch an empty glider crash as if it were remote controlled. Plus, if you crash your plane, it costs you points. Since points are like money in the game, it is teaching kids that poor designs will waste money, which is important to understand.

Christopher: What we might incorporate for the later multi-player function is non-violent things for racing (like Mario Kart does) that may slow competitor’s progress but do not harm the competitor in any way. We may also add non-human characters to avoid but not destroy.

Was it difficult making DAVinCI Flight attractive for both educational purposes and gaming for leisure?

Christopher: We constantly struggle with that. We’ve actually made DAVinCI Flight so you can play this game without it being in an educational setting, too, so you can still take on the challenge. In this case, the game unfolds for you in complexity as you progress through it. You do not have to know engineering concepts beforehand, but you’ll inevitably come out learning something. And you can play it at your own pace. The educational setting has a more rigid structure, so it was tough to balance both making a game for engaging students as well as an educational tool for learning.

Sheldon: A lot of games don’t use real physics. Rather, they approximate so the player can jump 500 feet or the planes and ships are unrealistically maneuverable. We have gone all-in on physics realism when it comes to designing and flying the glider and planes, but elsewhere in the game we’ve tried to strike a balance between reality and fun. If the game didn’t use real physics, then it would be less of an educational tool. On the fun side of it, we’ve tried to make the environment of the game very futuristic and polished. That aids in making the components that do not seem like a game more fun. We’ve added gaming concepts like scoring, which is necessary for buying more parts for the glider. Plus we have added features like custom parts and customizable paint jobs. You can even print 3D designs out of the game—how cool is that? So on the whole, we feel like DAVinCI Flight balances fun with education.

What goals do you hope DAVinCI Flight will ultimately achieve?

Christopher: With DAVinCI Flight we hope to help integrate engineering concepts into K-12 education; help students learn, use, and get excited about STEM; and really reach a lot of kids who might otherwise not see how math and science really is useful. Beyond DAVinCI Flight, the ultimate goal is to release other applications for the DAVinCI game platform to keep it fresh for kids and educators. You would still be applying math, engineering, and science concepts, but instead of a pure aeronautics focus, you could build cars, trucks, ships, submarines, space crafts, and bridges.

I would like to see our game in the classroom, being used in afterschool programs, and even helping initiatives like Project Lead the Way. This would help to introduce engineering modeling at an early age. In the long-term, we want to build a community around DAVinCI where parents, teachers, students, and enthusiasts can share tips and ideas while working on projects together. We want to one-day offer sponsored competitions and challenges. But most of all, we want DAVinCI to be a success and help improve STEM attitudes and outcomes while being a blast to play.

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By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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