3-D computer games ease 'pain' of organic chemistry

By Kristen Holland Shear

Toiling for hours on two-dimensional, written exercises has traditionally been the best study habit for pre-med college students struggling to comprehend the three-dimensional world of organic chemistry.

Until now, that is.

A new 3-D computer game being developed at UT Southwestern aims to help improve performance in one of the toughest courses required of those aspiring to attend medical or veterinary school. The as-yet-unnamed game is the first of many that biomedical communications faculty members hope to develop as part of the department’s new medical educational game initiative.

Lewis Calver (left) is working with Ken Coulter on the design of an as-yet-unnamed game that will bring 3-D realism to the study of organic chemistry.
“One of the problems with most serious games is that they haven’t really been tested,” said Ken Coulter, instructor of biomedical communications and an expert in computer game development.

Mr. Coulter is part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers from UT Southwestern and UT Dallas that recently received nearly $230,000 from the UT System’s Transforming Undergraduate Education Program to develop the game. As part of the grant, the group will study whether use of the game improves minority and disadvantaged student performance in organic chemistry.

Lewis Calver, chairman of the biomedical communications graduate program and principal investigator of the
UT Southwestern study, said the partnership with the arts and technology program at UT Dallas is a crucial element not only of this initial grant, but of the larger medical game initiative.

“The partnership enables us to take full advantage of UT Dallas’ expertise and experience in serious game design,” Mr. Calver said. “One of its graduate students will help produce the first game.”

Though educational game design is not a major part of the biomedical communications curriculum, UT Southwestern is the first medical illustration program to offer it as an elective. Graduate students currently take game design courses at UT Dallas, which is considered by many to be the leader of serious game design in Texas.

Mr. Calver said he is considering incorporating additional game design courses into the curriculum.

“The games, like this first one, would be appropriate for students at all levels,” Mr. Calver said. “Almost anything that’s abstract would be a good candidate. Physics, calculus, anything that requires any kind of abstract thinking really lends itself to this format.”

Another goal, Mr. Calver said, is for the department to become active in the UT System’s Serious Game Initiative, a statewide committee launched in March 2008 to explore how serious games could be used for innovative teaching and learning. Dr. Thomas Linehan, director of the arts and technology program and the Institute for Interactive Arts and Engineering at UT Dallas, leads the initiative.

“A cornerstone of our initiative is research and learning evaluation, including effective ways to accommodate different learning styles, measurement of learning outcomes, types of students that learn best with varied serious game design strategies and student motivation in a serious games learning environment,” Mr. Calver said. “People want kids to step away from their PlayStations and Xboxes. We would like to see them stay there and learn more science and math.”

Other UT Southwestern researchers involved in the medical gaming initiative include Dr. Byron Cryer, associate dean for minority affairs; Dr. Palma Longo, director of instructional development and education research; and Dr. John MacMillan, assistant professor of biochemistry. The UT Dallas researchers include Dr. Rebekah Nix, senior lecturer in educational technology, and Dr. Monica Evans, assistant professor of computer game design.