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August 8, 2007

Purdue aeronautics and astronautics course going to serious gaming format

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A revamped second-year course in Purdue University's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics won't be all fun and games.

But professors from three different areas in the College of Engineering and the interim director of the Discovery Learning Center in Discovery Park, whose program brought them together, say the course will be more engaging and believe it will better prepare students for the real world.

"Introduction to Aerospace Design" is going digital as a multiplayer online "serious" game that takes the concept of virtual gaming and turns it into an educational experience. Instead of sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture, students in the required course will participate in an interactive gaming experience that develops the skills they would need on the job.

Daniel DeLaurentis
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The project collaborators are Daniel DeLaurentis, an assistant professor in aeronautics and astronautics; Sean Brophy, an assistant professor in engineering education; and David Ebert, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. The three plan to have a prototype of the serious game by summer 2008 and to introduce it as a credit course in fall 2009.

The game and the course represent another step in the vision of bringing serious gaming to the 21st century classroom and bringing the classroom to the 21st century digital world, said Discovery Learning Center interim director Beverly Davenport Sypher. Sypher is a proponent of using serious games and various forms of digital media to enhance learning in an increasingly interactive world. The Discovery Learning Center organized an industry forum on serious games last April and will sponsor a research conference on the same subject in October.

In February the center launched the Games-to-Teach competition for Purdue faculty who wanted to develop a serious gaming curriculum for an existing class.

By submitting the winning proposal during that competition, DeLaurentis, Brophy and Ebert received $150,000 to support the course's development. The competition prize was funded by the Discovery Learning Center, Continuing Education and Conferences and the Purdue Research Foundation, along with the Office of Information Technology at Purdue and the colleges of Engineering, Education and Science.

"This really is on the cutting edge of using digital media to significantly change the course of education," Sypher said. "Students have an opportunity to learn course content in a visually engaging way that requires them to take on the roles of the professionals they will become.

"The goal is to meet this generation of learners in the way they live their lives. Harnessing the power of digital media is one way to do that. That's why we use the term 'serious games.' The goal is to embed learning in an entertaining and interactive environment. It engages all the senses, even introduces the element of competition, and gets young people excited."

Sypher, the Susan Bulkeley Butler Chair for Leadership Excellence, also is associate provost for special initiatives and professor of communication.

After the competition was announced in February, DeLaurentis sought feedback.

"The competition flier mildly caught my eye, but when I mentioned it to a couple of the graduate students I was working with, they were fired up and excited," he said. "They're really the ones who inspired me to pursue it."

Soon, DeLaurentis, Brophy and Ebert were collaborating on a winning proposal.

"The quality of their proposal was very high, and the team brought a broad range of expertise," Sypher said. "The fit between the content of the course and game design, along with the support from the College of Engineering and School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was impressive. The enthusiasm from the principal investigators also was evident from the beginning."

Sypher said picking the winning proposal from among the four finalists was a difficult task.

"I would like to have funded them all," she said.

DeLaurentis said the collaboration is an example of the teamwork needed in so many aspects of today's business world and how educators can play a significant role.

"Combining with the engineering education department makes a very compelling case that we're going to be on the forefront of this type of learning," he said. "The business world is interactive and collaborative."

The course objectives will remain the same; the change will come in the way they are executed for the serious game. Students form design teams of five or six members each, depending upon the class size, and half the teams design rockets for various mission scenarios while the other half design airplanes.

Sean Brophy
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The airplane design teams compete to sell planes to those making rockets. Those making rockets must buy the most strategic aircraft possible to transport materials as part of their proposal to a client buying their rockets.

The sales must be affordable and meet objectives. Clients are able to barter, and among the measurements for the class grade is how much of a profit the students make.

"These skills are what the students will need when they leave Purdue," DeLaurentis said. "This class teaches them the very basics of engineering principles, and it helps them learn written and oral communication skills. We're also trying to get them to do it in a team environment because that's how it is out in the real world. Several people work together on one project, and you may need parts from Japan, parts from California or anywhere in the world. We've created a corporate simulation. So this class lends itself well to gaming."

David Ebert
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Another benefit, Brophy said, is that students will have a better understanding of what is expected of them in the real world.

Ebert said that the course's development will have applications beyond aeronautics. The online game environment is being developed to support collaborative engineering design, which is a major challenge in all engineering disciplines, both in research and product development, he said.

The professors said they also think the reformatted class can help draw students into a discipline that is at a critical stage. More than half of the United States work force in the sciences and engineering is approaching retirement age, while interest in pursuing an engineering degree is declining among the nation's students, according to a brochure produced by the College of Engineering. DeLaurentis is hopeful innovative course designs such as this one will draw students to engineering.

"These kinds of remote, team-oriented environments are exactly what is happening," he said. "To go to, say, Boeing, with this kind of experience is a tremendous advantage."

Writer: Jim Bush, (765) 494-2077,

Sources: Beverly Davenport Sypher, (765) 494-4,9709,

Dan DeLaurentis, (765) 494-0694,

Sean Brophy, (765) 496-3316,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Students in the second-year aeronautics and astronautics class, Introduction to Aerospace Design, will take the concept of serious gaming to simulate the real working world. Beginning in 2009, the class will become an interactive serious game course. Engineering professors Dan DeLaurentis, Sean Brophy and David Ebert collaborated on the project that won the Discovery Learning Center's Games to Teach competition. The center's interim director, Beverly Davenport Sypher, created the competition to develop a serious gaming curricula in an existing credit course. The three professors won $150,000 to develop the serious game, of which they will have a prototype in 2008 and will introduce as a credit course in 2009. (Illustration/Masataka Okutsu

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