For computer science teachers, helping students conceptualize how information is transmitted and protected on networks can be difficult. But explaining the concept through a game makes it fun. That’s the aim of Network Collapse, a virtual reality STEM app developed by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. In the game, which won a Gold Award from the 2019 International Serious Play Awards, players assume the role of a router and must transfer incoming data packets to the correct outgoing pathway without losing too many. While playing the game, students learn about concepts included in the Computer Science Teachers Association K-12 Computer Science Standards. To find out more about the game, we contacted Evangelina Shreeve, director of STEM education at the lab, which is managed and operated by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy:
Q: Tell us about your job at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and your role in developing this educational video game Network Collapse.
A: I serve as the director of STEM education at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). My role in developing Network Collapse began at a future skills thinking workshop where I framed the question: “What if we were to look at STEM education problems the same way we look at scientific problems?”
As a national laboratory, we are a distinct organization in the fact that we have STEM subject matter experts and scientists and engineers who can work together to solve a single problem. Recognizing the growing gap of computer science (CS) literacy, and the fact our rural communities don’t have access to hire new CS teachers and sometimes don’t even offer CS courses, I proposed we bring in scientists from our visual analytics group to determine a way to use virtual reality (VR) to accelerate CS literacy as it pertains to CS standards. The project evolved from there.
Q: Where did the idea for Network Collapse come from and what is its educational aim?
A: A team of PNNL VR developers, computer scientists, and STEM educators brainstormed potential ideas for teaching national CS standards using the Oculus Go VR headset. The headset, which had only recently been released, seemed to be a good fit for educational VR activities due to its ease of use and lower price than other available headsets.
The idea for Network Collapse developed out of brainstorming sessions focused on how students could learn about how networks work and some of the cybersecurity measures used to protect data on networks.
Q: Who else on staff was involved in the game development? Did you seek input from educators, and how does the game tie into computer science standards?
Cameron Tynes, Nick Cramer and Russ Burtner from our Visual Analytics group, Ann Wright-Mockler (former classroom teacher) from the Office of STEM Education, and various CS and cybersecurity staff looked at the state CS standards and identified sets of standards they thought could be taught in a fun way using VR.
Initially, standards related to networks and the internet (including cybersecurity) seemed like a good fit for a castle defense or world-builder game. These initial ideas resonated with the team, but they wanted a game that could be played for its learning objectives in 10 to 15 minutes (with additional challenge levels for those who enjoyed it) so that teachers could use it in the classroom.
The game was piloted with local teachers and students, and their feedback helped improve the game. The game addresses network- and cybersecurity-focused CS standards.
Q: Can early elementary, middle school and high school students play? What educational benefit will each grade level gain from playing? How does the game work?
A: Students in elementary will primarily enjoy just playing the game; however, with teacher guidance, they could potentially understand how networks work.
Middle and high school students were the target audience, and data indicate that students at these ages, after playing the game, usually understand the role of a router in a network, that data is moved in data packets and the basic cybersecurity attacks and tools in the game.
In the game, the player takes on the role of a switch or router in a network and must pick up incoming data packets and sort them to the correct color and symbol of the outgoing connection. As the levels advance, network traffic increases, and cybersecurity tools (firewalls and antivirus) become available to help defend the network.
Q: How would a teacher use this game in the classroom? What equipment is required, and how would a student play the game?
A: One possible way a teacher could use this game in the classroom would be at the beginning of a unit on networks and the internet. Students could rotate stations of activities and play the game at one of those stations. This reduces the need to have a class set of VR headsets as only a few students play at a time.
The game is free on the Oculus store and can be played using either the Oculus Go or Samsung Gear VR. It may be accessible on the Oculus Quest later this year.
The student plays by putting on the headset and using the controller to pick up incoming data packets (shaped like boxes). The student places each packet on its matching outgoing connection. Up to five data packets can be held in the “ray gun” for faster sorting.
A teachers’ guide is available with suggestions for other activities to advance student knowledge of networks and the internet.
Q: What has been the reaction of educators to this game?
A: Currently, we have received only positive responses from educators. We anticipate that this will increase as more schools offer CS classes. We have had requests to bring our VR headsets to classes for students to play the game.
In addition, the game has been so well received that our local educational service district asked if we could assist with a proviso on recent climate science standards in the state of Washington. We used the same model and approach to create a climate science app, which garnered great reactions among teachers.
Q: How do educators gain access to the game and equipment?
A: The game is available free on the Oculus store. The headsets can be purchased from Oculus, Samsung, Amazon, Best Buy and similar retailers starting at about $150 each. The only additional need is a smartphone or tablet with Wi-Fi to complete the initial setup.
Q: What more would you like educators to know about this game?
A: We designed this game for authentic student engagement that uses the capabilities of VR. It would be expensive and time-consuming to get the materials needed to run the virtual activity in real life, but by using VR students can engage in a genuine way with the ideas and terms being introduced.
To see what the game play is like, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLvUMCiumJ0
The teachers’ guide can be downloaded free from https://www.pnnl.gov/projects/stemvr/network-collapse.