Game-based learning is fun and games, and that's OK


Junior Nettie Payne, right, and Larysa Nadolny, assistant professor in the School of Education, review a project for Curriculum and Instruction 202, a course Nadolny redesigned using game-based learning. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Larysa Nadolny had a problem and she needed to fix it.

When she came to Iowa State four years ago, Nadolny, an assistant professor in the School of Education, began teaching Curriculum and Instruction 202 (CI 202), a large technology course required for all students in secondary education programs. She approached the class traditionally -- lectures a couple times a week and smaller lab sessions.

It wasn't working. Nadolny estimated only 50 to 75 percent of the students were coming to class.

"I found that I wasn't getting the response back from the students that I wanted," she said. "They weren't engaged, they weren't coming to class. So there was this problem and I had to figure out how to solve it."

Nadolny turned to game-based learning, or GBL, for the fix.

What is GBL?

GBL is an approach to designing curriculum that, at its core, is structured like a game. One design might include levels that unlock as a student earns points, and another may focus on role-playing and teamwork. Students in these environments are allowed to make mistakes and, through experimentation, they actively learn and practice to reach success.

GBL is not a new concept, but its foray into higher education has been fairly recent.

"People who develop games have known for a long time what motivates people, and as educators we haven't always focused on what motivates the students. Now we're realizing how important that is to their learning," Nadolny said.

Her class structure

The content of Nadolny's class is the same today as it was four years ago. Her students still arrive at the same place at the end of each semester, but GBL makes the journey more interesting.

Using Blackboard, Nadolny gives students 10 "quests" to complete by the end of the semester; she doesn't let them work ahead. Each quest is structured with the same pattern, and each activity builds on one another. Within each quest, there are several challenges students must complete before they can advance to the next quest.

Each quest begins with the students preparing in advance for the once-a-week lecture with readings, discussions and an online quiz. They get three chances to take the quiz, which includes a random set of questions. Only the highest score is recorded. By the time the students meet with Nadolny in class, they've already immersed themselves in the content.

"They have the ability to talk about it, whereas before, if they hadn't done the readings, they would just sit there trying to catch up," she said.

During the lecture period, students are divided into small groups to participate in reviews, case studies and small games. Fridays are dedicated to labs, where -- again in small groups -- the students work together to complete three challenges. They aren't allowed to move on to the next challenge until they've correctly completed the first one, and so on.

"There's lots of collaboration, there's some competition, there's freedom to fail and retry until they're successful," Nadolny said. "These are all gaming principles that are really important."

The results speak for themselves. After implementing GBL, Nadolny said class participation in all activities is up to 90 percent.

Junior Marissa Donahue is enrolled in Nadolny's course this semester and enjoys the class format.

"It gives me a chance to come to class prepared. I know what to expect," Donahue said.

Sophomore Joseph Tompulis likes both the large- and small-group atmosphere.

"I enjoy both settings and it's fun to experience them both for one class," he said.

What GBL isn't

Nadolny cautions instructors who think incorporating one gaming principle into a class makes it game-based learning.

"A lot of people think adding badges (like electronic gold stars for certain achievements) or adding one little piece of gaming is game-based learning. It's not," she said. "In game-based learning, you have to gamify the entire environment. It doesn't have to be a whole semester like mine, it could be just a unit."

The key, she said, is motivation. She recommends faculty examine their entire class, determine what will motivate their students and then add extras, like the badges, if it makes sense.

"You need to see what works for your content, your students, for the whole context of your classroom," Nadolny said.

She added that GBL works well for any curriculum, not just technology courses such as hers.

GBL resources

Nadolny is considered a GBL pioneer at Iowa State. Three years ago, when she converted CI 202 to GBL, there were few campus resources. She tackled the task of redesigning the entire course herself, with the help of her lab instructors.

"I've always been interested in games and part of my research is games, immersive learning and virtual environments -- things that get youth and students into learning," she said.

Nadolny shared what she was doing with the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT). Today, CELT offers faculty and staff several GBL resources, including a teaching and learning community, access to GBL articles and scholarly reports from other institutions, and instructional design professionals who can assist with course redesign. For more information on how to get started with GBL, contact CELT at 294-5357.

For those with a penchant for reading, Nadolny suggests The Multiplayer Classroom, by Lee Sheldon, and Gamify Your Classroom, by Matthew Farber, for a solid introduction to game-based learning.

Worth the effort

Nadolny admits converting a traditional lecture class into a GBL format was not an easy task, but well worth it.

"No matter how hard the class was to build, I find it fun and motivating. I think that's just as important as meeting the needs of the students because they see that in me," Nadolny said. "It's a way for me to keep my passion semester after semester. It's challenging and it's fun, and hopefully the students feel the same way."

Nominations, applications sought in EO director search

A national search has begun to hire a director for Iowa State's office of equal opportunity. Associate provost for faculty Dawn Bratsch-Prince and senior associate athletics director for sports administration Calli Sanders are leading a seven-member university committee that is assisted by the Massachusetts-based Spelman and Johnson Group. The search firm will help develop the applicant pool and assist with the logistics of the search. Details about the position are online.

Nominations, applications sought

Nominations for the position may be emailed to Bratsch-Prince or Sanders, or to senior associate Mark Hall at the search firm. The application deadline for guaranteed consideration is Dec. 7, but applications will be accepted until the position is filled. Bratsch-Prince said the intent is to bring finalists to campus by early February for interviews that will include a public forum. The goal is to announce the next director by March.

Iowa State's EO director manages all aspects of equal opportunity and affirmative action programs, from ensuring university compliance with laws and regulations to investigating and resolving complaints. Mary Sirna, administrative adviser for ISU police, began serving as interim EO director last month. The position reports to the president's office, but is distinct from Iowa State's new vice president for diversity and inclusion post, which will focus on strategically increasing institutional diversity and advocating for diversity and inclusion. (Reginald Stewart begins in the new position on Dec. 1.)

Search committee members

  • Dawn Bratsch-Prince, co-chair
  • Calli Sanders, co-chair
  • Joe Campos, dean of students office
  • Maureen De Armond, university counsel office
  • Kurt Earnest, residence department
  • Sara Jensen, public safety department
  • CJ Kulish, university human resources department

Faculty professional development requests go to regents

Faculty professional development proposals and tuition and fee rates, all for the 2016-17 academic year, are on the agenda when the state Board of Regents meets Dec. 2. Technically a telephonic meeting, many board members will be present at the ISU alumni center. An agenda is online; audio of all public sessions of the meeting will be streamed live on the board's website.

Iowa State is requesting approval of 31 professional development assignments during fiscal year 2017, down about 15 percent from the current year's 37 approved assignments. The group includes 18 men and 13 women; 15 of the requests are for the fall 2016 semester, and eight each for spring semester and the full academic year. Fifty-one Iowa State faculty submitted an application.

Each university maintains its own qualifications for faculty professional development assignments. At Iowa State, all faculty members employed at least halftime -- or 1,854 faculty -- were eligible to apply. There is no requirement on length of service, though the average among this year's applicant group is 11 years. Priority may be given to tenured faculty over adjunct and nontenured faculty and to those who have not received a professional development assignment in the past five years.

Tuition and fees

The proposed tuition increases for 2016-17 reviewed by the board in October have not changed. They include:

  • A freeze for Iowa State and Northern Iowa resident undergraduates – who will have a 3 percent increase this spring semester -- and a 3 percent increase ($200) for Iowa resident undergraduates
  • A 3 percent increase for Iowa State ($594) and Northern Iowa ($504) nonresident undergraduates and a 1.9 percent increase ($502) for Iowa nonresident undergraduates
  • A 3 percent increase for all graduate students at Iowa State (range of $244-$632) and Northern Iowa ($242-$546) and a 1.9 percent increase ($160-$486) for graduate and professional students at Iowa, except medical students (1.5 percent for residents and 2.5 percent for nonresidents)
  • A 4 percent increase ($826) for veterinary medicine resident students and a 3 percent increase ($1,386) for nonresidents

If the rates are approved, undergraduate tuition would be $6,848 for residents and $20,362 for out-of-state students next year.

Iowa State is asking for its first supplemental tuition since 2011-12, $500 per year for three years, for current and new nonimmigrant, noncitizen international students. The revenue would help cover costs of additional services needed for international students, currently funded by all students.

And, if the board approves proposed mandatory student fee increases, all ISU students would pay an additional $33.50 next year, including a $20 health fee increase and a $13.50 student services fee increase. Mandatory student fees would range from $1,075 to $1,337 for ISU students.

Honorary degrees: Julius, Sukup

University leaders will ask to award two honorary degrees at the fall graduation ceremony next month, to alumna and economist DeAnne Julius and Iowa businessman Eugene Sukup. A doctor of humane letters would be presented to Julius for "distinguished service in economics, business, international relations, government, policymaking and academia." An Ames High and Iowa State (1970) graduate, Julius' career includes positions with the Central Intelligence Agency, World Bank, Bank of England and the think tank Chatham House (also known as Royal Institute of International Affairs), where she currently serves as senior adviser to its board.

An honorary doctor of science degree would be presented to Sukup for his contributions to state, national and global agricultural challenges, particularly in the area of grain storage. With his wife, Mary, Sukup founded Sukup Manufacturing in 1963 in Sheffield, and today employs 550 people. Over 50 years, he received 40 U.S. patents and 10 foreign patents; the company holds another 44 patents that don't include his name. The Sukups have supported numerous academic and athletic projects at Iowa State.

Building projects

Iowa State will seek board approval for three previously announced construction projects. They are:

  • An $11.5 million proposal to enhance the 10-acre green space between the south end of the football stadium and Reiman Gardens (where lots S2-4 currently sit). This project is considered phase three of the larger effort to bowl in the south end and make other improvements at the stadium. The project will enhance both Iowa State's south entrance and the gardens' entrance, and visually connect the stadium with the gardens. The proposed plaza will include a water fountain, trees, grass areas, new drives and walkways, and a storm water filtering area. The project would be paid for with private gifts, athletic facilities bonds (sold previously) and athletics department and university funds. Work would begin in spring 2016 and be completed by winter.
  • A revised $7.9 million budget (an increase of $1.7 million) for the dining center renovation at Friley residence hall. The project will convert inactive dining and kitchen areas into a food court with four venues (instead of two), and student and private dining spaces, and create a new east entrance to Friley Hall. ISU Dining will operate this dining center. Work would begin in June 2016 and be completed in June 2017.
  • A $5.5 million renovation in the Forker Building for the kinesiology department. The project will convert underused ground-floor men's locker rooms to faculty and graduate student offices, replace exterior windows in the new office area, create new restrooms, replace mechanical equipment and install a fire sprinkler system in the 1940 portion of the building. The project will begin in spring 2016 and be completed by fall 2017.

In other business, Iowa State will seek board permission to:

  • Demolish the Spangler Geotechnical Lab (built in 1949) and attached storage building (built in 1983) east of the Applied Sciences Complex. The facility is functionally obsolete and its functions relocated to other College of Engineering facilities. The estimated demolition cost is $250,000.
  • Issue an estimated $12.6 million in bonds to advance-refund $18 million in academic building revenue bonds sold in 2007 to finance parts of two projects: the veterinary teaching hospital and diagnostic lab and the Coover Hall addition and renovation. Payments on the 2007 bonds were to begin in July 2016 and continue into 2027. Lower interest rates would save the university an estimated $730,000.

First 200 benches installed in hallways

Two employees set up benches in a Carver Hall hallway

Campus services employees Pete Meirick (left) and Jon Braathun set up new benches in a Carver Hall corridor late last week. Heavily used Carver Hall is getting 39 of an initial 200 benches. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

The hallway waiting game got a little easier for students this month in eight campus buildings. Campus services crews installed 178 benches in hallways in Carver, Coover, Gilman, Hoover, Howe, Lagomarcino, Pearson and Physics halls, with another 22 to be placed soon. The benches, produced in state by Iowa Prison Industries, make use of cypress wood that formerly served as patio fencing at University Village student apartments.

The intent is to provide attractive hallway seating for students waiting for classes or exams while helping declutter hallways.

Students sit on benches in Carver Hall hallway

Within minutes, students make use of hallway benches installed in Carver Hall. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Two hundred more benches have been ordered and should be delivered to campus early in the spring semester, according to construction manager Nathan Graves in facilities planning and management. Most will contain cypress wood; a limited number will be made from the wood of a scarlet oak tree that once stood southeast of the campanile and was dried and processed through the university's TreeCycle program.

Last spring, FPM director Dave Miller grabbed hold of the idea to provide more corridor seating for students, particularly in buildings with heavy classroom use. An FPM team designed a bench and IPI produced a prototype. Miller sought funding help from all corners of campus, with good results. However, funding still is needed for about 100 of the benches. Unit administrators who'd like to help should contact Miller.

Crews are distributing the benches to building locations based loosely on the number of general university classrooms, student credit hours delivered there and space availability in corridors. Graves also is working with building tenants and ISU asset recovery to try to remove some of the old hallway furniture as new benches arrive.

Related story:

Team effort could provide 400 hallway benches for students, May 7, 2015

Major updates coming for business, student technology systems

A request for proposal (RFP) has been issued to replace Iowa State's financial, human resources and student information systems. These systems, which have been running on a mainframe-based set of business applications, date back to the 1970s.

Moving from the mainframe to cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) and student information systems (SIS) will significantly advance the technology that drives the university's business processes.

"Put simply, this undertaking will change the way the university does business," said President Steven Leath. "A new ERP and SIS will enhance our ability to collaborate across business units, create a sustainable IT enterprise across campus and improve our efficiency."

And, Leath notes, the new system will give students, faculty and staff better access to university services and information through mobile devices and simplified user interfaces.

Extensive campus collaboration

The RFP is the result of several months of collaboration between Huron Consulting, one of the consultants from the state Board of Regents' Transparent Inclusive Efficiency Review (TIER), and stakeholders from the university community. Nearly 400 individuals contributed input and suggested reporting requirements for the new ERP SIS.

"The engagement across the ISU campus that we have experienced pertaining to our selection of a new technology system has been unlike anything we have previously enjoyed," said chief information officer Jim Kurtenbach. "Our consultants tell us that they had far more interaction with ISU team members than with some university systems that operate multiple campuses."

Kurtenbach noted, "Our campus engagement speaks volumes about our university's commitment to this project."

Vendor, implementation partner selections

After proposals are vetted and vendors make campus presentations, the proposal should be awarded by the end of March 2016.

Once the vendor is chosen, the focus turns toward selecting an implementation partner and designing an implementation process. Kurtenbach anticipates the implementation will take several years.

Information about the requirements for the ERP SIS are available on the purchasing website.

Fact or fiction

Mythbusters cohosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage.

Is it possible to herd cats? Do cell phones cause plane crashes? Can you get your socks knocked off? These are some of the questions that Jamie Hyneman (pictured left) and Adam Savage address with scientific experiments to prove or disprove common -- and uncommon -- myths and legends as co-hosts of the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters series.

Hyneman and Savage have taken their show on the road, with a stop at Stephens Auditorium on Monday, Nov. 30 (7 p.m.). "Mythbusters: Jamie and Adam Unleashed" includes a night of audience participation, demonstrations, experiments and storytelling. Tickets for the show range from $25 to $150 and are available through Ticketmaster or the Iowa State ticket office. Contributed photo.