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Engineering students grow smarter thanks to FarmVille

By Adrian Bishop - 01 Nov 2011 20:50:0 GMT
Engineering students grow smarter thanks to FarmVille

FarmVille Screenshot; Credit: Zynga

Engineering students at a top American university are using an internet farming game to harvest new approaches to difficult problems. The 28 students at Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) played Facebook's popular FarmVille game to learn how to help improve their decision-making in both engineering and in the commercial world.

Undergraduates studying Engineering Management 382, Introduction to Operations Research, raised virtual crops, tended livestock and battled to make the most money and win the farming simulation game.

Course lecturer, assistant professor Dr. Ivan G. Guardiola, says the challenge brought real benefits. "The unique attributes of this game make it ideal for presenting the students with a problem that evolves, aims to define the student's decision-making rationale and allows the student to address conflicting and competing objectives in an environment of continuous change."

Last year's students were given a month to carry out a similar exercise, but, after feedback, the length of this year's task was cut to a week.

Students initially planned their actions using mathematic modelling, but as the game progressed, they were able to change their tactics accordingly.

"It is up to the player to determine how much land to plough, which seeds to plant, how many seeds to plant, and when to harvest the plants. Decisions are completely up to the player," adds Dr Guardiola.

The exercise is useful because it allows students to create strategies for dealing with uncertainty and changing priorities, the lecturer explains.

"In engineering, we use data to make decisions, but that approach has limitations because situations are constantly changing. So you have to assess your situation continuously and adjust accordingly."

The idea of learning through gaming began in the Second World War and it is now an established scientific method of study.

The FarmVille game helps the students improve their planning, logistical skills and distribution methods that they will encounter in their work, says Dr Guardiola.

Most students who undertook the first FarmVille Challenge said it has boosted their thinking and learning skills.

Dr Guardiola's research paper about the project, Using Social Networking Game to Teach Operations Research and Management Science Fundamental Concepts, was joint winner of the 2011 Best Young Faculty Paper Award from the Industrial Engineering Division of the American Society for Engineering Education.

Dr Guardiola, along with co-authors, Dr. Susan Murray, professor of engineering management and systems engineering, and Dr. Elizabeth Cudney, assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering, received the honour in October at the annual conference of the American Society for Engineering Education in San Antonio.

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