NASA’s Space Grant Program funds interdisciplinary minor

2/6/2009 - By: Zanny Marsh

An interdisciplinary effort by University professors to create a minor in "serious" games has received $20,000 in grant funding from the Nevada NASA Space Grant Consortium.

The funds will facilitate development of an innovative, learn-by-doing program that uses games to help students from different academic disciplines work together.

Students from art, journalism and computer science and engineering will create projects that present complicated topics in an engaging way.

"We learn by playing," said Sushil Louis, professor of computer science and engineering. "Just like pilots learn by 'playing' on flight simulators, we can design fun games that teach complex skills."

Project collaborator Larry Dailey agrees.

"Who said this isn't rocket science?" said Dailey, journalism professor and Reynolds chair of media technology. "Interactive computer games can be much more than entertainment."

A wealth of academic literature points to the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and learn-by-doing educational experiences.

The new games minor provides an ideal setting for this type of education because, by definition, most games incorporate art, communicate complex concepts and require technically skilled implementation.

In this minor, the engineering expertise is provided by professors from the computer science and engineering department. Likewise, artistic expertise is provided by professors from the art department and communication expertise is provided by professors from the Reynolds School.

"I am really excited about this new minor — from the perspective of our digital media program — this truly fits the bill of working to create interdisciplinary, collaborative opportunities," said Joseph DeLappe, professor of art.

The department of computer science and engineering will receive $10,000. Another $10,000 has been awarded to the Reynolds School of Journalism and Center for Advanced Media Studies.

A $10,000 grant for the art department is under consideration.

The Nevada NASA Space Grant Consortium's mission supports Nevada university students, faculty and research in science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields, said Leone Thierman, program coordinator.

One of the key factors in deciding to fund this project was the collaboration between the three fields.

"They're creating interdisciplinary applications, involving students from different backgrounds and collaborating on a project that could have implications for space science," Thierman said.

"It's great to see three disparate departments working together in a brand new field," said Jerry Ceppos, Reynolds School dean. "I can't imagine that many journalism schools get NASA grants."

While the academic minor harnesses the power of interdisciplinary collaboration, it leverages individual units' strengths.

"This builds on our department's research and educational efforts," said Yaakov Varol, chair of computer science and engineering. "Already we have four faculty members using games in their research and teaching, and we have received significant prior industry and government funding in this area."

The minor uses existing departmental strengths to provide students with new opportunities. In addition, the program builds on one of Nevada's strengths — gaming.

"Nevada's already a state known for gaming. We hope to put that expertise to use in new ways, helping people to understand their government or their environment better," Dailey said.

"From our students' perspective, the skill set used to develop serious games is in high demand, both locally and globally. Where else would you see artists, software engineers, and journalists working together?"

Louis asked.

DeLappe agrees. "One can think of computer gaming as being about where silent films were in the 1920s - we are truly laying the groundwork here for what could be a very important step toward the University becoming a significant player in the evolution of this nascent medium."

Besides, serious games are serious fun. As Mark Twain said "Work and play are used to describe the same thing under differing conditions." Hence the minor's tag-line: "All work is play."


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