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Make engineering fun for kids

Posted: 04 Mar 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:engineering kids? 3D video game? software?

Perhaps because they don't see how engineering and science are used in real life, kids often become disinterested with those subjects at an early age, which can severely limit their career options as an adult. I should know; I was one of those kids. This is my story about how I got a second chance and went on to develop a computer game to make and keep engineering fun for students in the middle school and high school grades.

My journey started when I was a kid growing up in the late 1970s. There were no video games or Internet back then, so I spent most of my time taking things apart to see how they worked. Like many of you, I enjoy this type of "hands on" engineering much more than traditional book work (my parents likely less so, especially when they found the dishwasher or laundry machine in various states of disassembly).

I attended college for mechanical engineering, but I soon discovered that my knowledge of math and science was not strong enough to carry me through. I wished that I had been interested in those subjects more at an earlier time in my education, but that window was now closed (or so I thought).

I changed the direction of my career and took a full-time job in a fabrication shop, where I learned to be a machinist, welder and sheet metal fabricator. I applied for a position in the engineering department, where I started on the drafting boards and soon learned computer-aided design. I quickly embraced this new "tool" and excelled as a 3D CAD designer; I was soon capturing all of our production drawings in 3D, saving our company money and time with better-designed products.

Then came the really fun stuff: creating engineering animations and simulations with the computer and 3D software. I started to moonlight doing small projects that soon turned into larger projects and contracts. I finally quit my day job to start my own company doing 3D CAD design, animations and interactive media. I had gotten my second chanceand soon I was afforded an opportunity to repay the favor, giving back to a field that I clearly loved but had inadvertently dismissed so many years ago.

The College of Engineering at Valparaiso University in Indiana had a small grant to fund ideas that could help get students interested in an engineering career. They heard about the work I was doing and contacted me for a meeting to brainstorm.

Right away, I thought of producing a computer game that would let kids see the importance of learning math and science at an earlier age while giving them "hands on" experience with interactive simulations to enhance their level of learning.

In my concept for the game, the player travels back in time to experience how important projectssuch as the building of the pyramids or the design of the catapultwere engineered. I thought the time-travel scenario would be a great way to lock-in the student's interest with visual animations and sound effects.

The game, Time Engineers, has touched a chord with educators and kids alike, selling 3,000+ units to date. Choosing Children's Software magazine honored Time Engineers with a Best Pick award, and Children's Technology Review awarded the game an All Star Software designation. More important is the feedback I get from kids, such as these comments from Brendan, a 10-year old fourth grader: "The first thing I liked most about Time Engineers are all the puzzles. The second thing I liked most about Time Engineers are the sound effects and music. I had no clue how to convert numbers to binary until I got this game. The thing I like the best about the game are the graphics, especially the time pod. I think Mr. Shingler has a great imagination."

My journey continues. The next iteration of the game will incorporate themes of social impact through engineering in environmental and biomedical fields, and it will look at contributions made by women and minorities in their fields.

The game is available for purchase online at www.timeengineers.com.

- Ray Shingler is director of development for UBM Studios, a sister company of TechInsights, and is co-founder of Software Kids.





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