Student Computer Game Simulates Biofuel Production

In most college classes, students are quizzed with questions and the professors already know the answer. But CS 699, a special topics course in Computer Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, turns that teaching method on its head: university scientists turn to students to help crack their toughest research questions.

“Folks come in with a problem — a species they know about or a bioenergy challenge,” says Ben Shapiro, a scientist in WID’s Educational Research group Games+Learning+Society and one of the course’s instructors. “These are real problems. Students [in our class] have to pick a problem, and build models to shed light on it.”

Shapiro co-teaches CS 699 with Michael Ferris, a professor of Computer Sciences, and Steve Wangen, a postdoc at WID and in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. In the spring of 2011, the class was inspired by research questions from Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) scientists to create the concept for a biofuel farming computer game. Since then, the instructors have worked with their students, WID researchers, and GLBRC staff to develop a game that can help tease apart the social, economic, and environmental factors involved in growing biofuel crops.

With the collaboration of Rosemary Russ in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, the researchers have been able to study the thought and learning processes of players to gain insights into the decision-making behavior of farmers, biofuel producers, and other stakeholders.

“Developing sustainable solutions to energy challenges involves value judgments: scientists and farmers might weigh different factors differently, from soil quality, to energy production, to feeding a family,” says Shapiro. He explains that in the game, players take on the role of a farmer and make decisions about what crops to plant each simulated season based on competing environmental, social and market factors.

As farmers, players of the biofuel farming computer game must view energy as a commodity. In each round, they choose between planting a perennial crop like switchgrass, which produces less energy but has important sustainability benefits, or an annual crop like corn, which is more energy-productive but can present some environmental challenges.

Just like in the real world, players must decide how to reward success in wealth, energy production and environmental conservation. Decisions about how to weigh each of these values sets the bar for winning and losing in the game: while the top prize for one round might go to the richest player, the next game’s champion might be the most environmentally sustainable ‘farmer.’

“Developing sustainable solutions to energy challenges involves value judgments: scientists and farmers might weigh different factors differently, from soil quality, to energy production, to feeding a family.”

— Ben Shapiro

This balance between environmental and financial measures of success is central to the research and development of real-life sustainable energy systems such as biofuels.

“Sustainability is something that can be defined by a community,” says Leith Nye, GLBRC’s Education and Outreach Specialist. Nye is working with Shapiro and former CS 699 students to refine the game and adapt it to formal education setting on campus and in high school classrooms.

For Shapiro, the value of the game lies in its potential to engage people with different values in a productive dialogue about decision-making.

“Our hope is that people playing the game with this information about economics and sustainability will have to figure out: are there ways to do well at both?” says Shapiro. “It’s hard to have conversations about these ideas in the abstract, but a game can elicit a lot of discussion.”

The software-based simulation will continue to be developed this fall, and the goal is to create a web version by the end of the semester.

Going forward, the developers have high hopes for the game, including potential social media applications to provide more experiences for people to communicate and learn about energy.

“Games can engage students in exploration and education outside the classroom,” says Nye. He believes that in addition to its social value, the game has educational benefits that could facilitate the development of new skills and the creation of new knowledge.

“The biofuels farming computer game gives students the opportunity to explore their ideas about how complex systems work, and then adjust their predictions based on realistic constraints and feedback,” he says. “The game comes out of real research on energy and environmental challenges, and if students can contribute to understanding research problems, then that is really exciting.”

— Celia Luterbacher, GLBRC (original story)