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Sustainability Education: It’s All Fun and Games

December 14, 2018

As the student guided the underwater robot across the ocean’s floor collecting plastic waste, the trash began to accumulate faster. The basket-shaped robot zipped through the water attempting to catch as much debris as possible before it hit the ocean floor, but the once manageable trickle of plastic bottles and straws soon became an avalanche covering the seabed. The situation wasn’t real, of course, but a game designed by first-year students in the College of Engineering (COE) to educate on sustainability.

Sustainability, the practice of efficiently using resources to prevent exhausting them, is key to ensuring the livability of our planet and fighting climate change. Given sustainability’s importance, educating young people about the issue is crucial. How do you engage a young audience on such a serious issue? With their Cornerstone of Engineering projects, first-year College of Engineering students sought to tackle the issue in a fun and educational manner.

Each year, COE first-year students taking Cornerstone of Engineering develop an interactive game to educate children about an important issue. This year, Gateway faculty member Professor Kathryn Schulte Grahame partnered with Boston’s Museum of Science (MOS) on her classes’ projects. “The idea to work with the MOS came from a former student who had a contact there,” said Schulte Grahame. “Before that, the idea to make museum exhibits existed in a more homely form and had been slowly evolving as a natural result of exploring the engineering design process.”  The partnership allowed students to draw on the unique expertise of the museum in entertaining and informing young audiences.

Working in teams of four, students developed a game that would educate on an issue of sustainability and meet a series of qualifications: it had to contain a 3D-printed design element, inform about the ethics surround their chosen facet of sustainability and the ways in which it affects people, profit and planet, and include a handout for the user.

The Museum of Science also provided guidance on making the game displays inclusive for all audiences. For example, certain display height and angle requirements ensure that those using wheelchairs can also enjoy the experience. The exercise represents a challenging opportunity for students to put their budding engineering skills to the test, and acquire new abilities. Many of the student groups developed a video game component to their design, requiring them to learn coding. “This year’s project really took things to a new level,” Schulte Grahame said. Many groups proactively included technology from outside the curriculum. “The use of RFID technology, LED light strips, and other tech we don’t even cover in class is a nice touch and I am so impressed with how students are resourceful to achieve their own visions.”

Bubbles’ Cleanup Adventure, the game described above from first-years Jordan Alves, Robert Foglio, Daniel Potapov and Daniel Oprica, was designed to educate kids about the issue of plastic waste in oceans. Players attempt to collect litter as it is thrown in the water. In the corner of screen, a timer tracks the current year, and the flow of trash increases with time until collection becomes unmanageable. The game cannot be “won”. Instead, players learn that dealing with sea pollution is not a matter of clean-up. Rather, our unsustainable habits of plastics use need to change.

In the game “Do You Speak For The Trees?” Amanda Kovasala, Annabelle Mathers, Mark Morton and Maia Woodard built a game that aimed to show kids the differing carbon costs associated with purchasing a set of school supplies. Players could fill their virtual basket with different supplies and map the carbon costs of their choices. They were “looking for something that kids could relate to and apply to their lives,” the team shared. To help them master the process behind calculating carbon costs, they enlisted the help of PhD student Lucas Troup from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Another team, transport.io, approached the issue of sustainability and carbon-costs from the angle of transportation. Their interactive game allowed players to move their piece around a board on a quest to retrieve an item and return to their starting point. Along the way, the game maps the carbon output of various forms of transportation, including emerging modes such as Hyperloop. Players will discover the most efficient means for traveling particular distances.

In total, 15 teams participated as part of Professor Schulte Grahame’s Cornerstone of Engineering classes. They presented their projects in late November in the Curry Student Center at Northeastern University. The following Saturday, students shared their projects with the community at the Museum of Science, where their children-focused games could be put to the test. The Museum of Science is creating a co-op positon inspired by the success of the collaboration.

Professor Schulte has plans to push her Cornerstone of Engineering class even further by continuing to work with MOS and developing new community outreach programs to enhance the service learning component of the course. “By working with the community and actual children, we are better able to understand our intended audience and further develop our ideas, and enhance the authenticity of our design experience at the MOS,” she said.