Engineering students at Bath get ahead of the game

Students from the University of Bath are using a computer car racing game to help them to learn the principles of engineering.

The computer simulation game, 'Racing Academy', allows first year engineering students to theoretically design aspects of a racing car such as the tyres, gearbox and engine, before racing it against a computer generated car.

This innovative teaching tool has now been analysed by psychologists and engineers at the University to gauge how effective gaming can be as a learning tool in undergraduate education.

Lecturer in Psychology, Dr Richard Joiner, and Mechanical Engineering Director of Learning & Teaching, Dr Jos Darling, carried out the research with the help of the game's developers, Lateral Visions and Martin Owen at Futurelab.

Their project, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and the University of Bath Teaching Development Fund, was awarded the prestigious 'Best Application of Gaming & Simulation to Learning Prize' at the IMS Global Learning Awards 2009 that took place in Barcelona last month.

Dr Jos Darling said: "The game has been designed so that the emphasis is on the engineering rather than the driver's skill. We also test their engineering knowledge before and after the game.

"We found that the game not only motivated the students to learn about engineering, but also helped team-building within the tutor group, which is really important in the first year."

'Racing Academy' helps students learn which aspects of car design affect performance by analysing data collected during the race. This allows them to fine-tune their design to achieve optimum performance.

The students first practise individually, and then compete against each other within their tutor groups for the best time.

Dr Ben Drew, Mechanical Engineer at the University of Bath, and Jo Iacovides, now a PhD student at the Open University implemented the software and carried out surveys and focus groups.

They found that not only did the students embrace computer gaming as part of their syllabus, but also confirmed it as a useful learning tool that led to a deeper understanding of the fundamental engineering principles involved.

Dr Drew said: "Whilst one student said that their peers from other programmes were jealous of their homework tasks, another commented that it was more like 'hardcore work' than a game, but that it was also fun at the same time".

Brendan Neville, Director at Lateral Visions, said: "The success of this project demonstrates that 'serious games' are a powerful way to engage students and maintain their interest in learning.

"We are delighted that Racing Academy has now been used successfully at the University of Bath for two years and that a free download is being made available to both schools and universities in the UK."

The researchers hope to further develop the game to incorporate other aspects of engineering, such as fuel economy, into the racing car design.

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