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Published by Teri Balser
Article in LakeLine Magazine Summer 2013. Posted to UF CALS Dean.
Article in LakeLine Magazine Summer 2013. Posted to UF CALS Dean.

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Published by: Teri Balser on Aug 08, 2013
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Summer 2013 / LAKELINE 33

Water Education
Nitrogen Game: Successfully Bridging the
Gap Between Educational Learning and Fun
Dana Bigham, Julie Collins, and Teri Balser
For the Love of Games
In recent years, many of us have
become physics “experts” – largely due
to our ability to precisely and intuitively
calculate the trajectory needed to fing an
angry bird at a pig. Phone applications,
such as the infamous Angry Birds game,
are used on average a total of an hour
a day (Bohmer et al. 2011). A full 90
percent of American children and teens
play video games an average of two hours
a day (Prot et al. 2012). Games, whether
video, board, or card games, have been
and continue to be a popular pastime.
There is truth to Roald Dahl’s statement,
“life is more fun if you play games!”
In the United States, undergraduate
students in science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics (the STEM
disciplines) consistently rank at or near
the bottom of international assessments
of educational achievement. In particular,
there is a lag in our students’ ability to
think critically and solve problems that
has been shown to hinder recruitment
and advancement in scientifc careers
(Drew 2011). Following multiple calls for
reform, science education is transformed
through modifcation oI teaching and
learning strategies (Woodin et al. 2009).
Tools that encourage students to engage
beyond the classroom in learning
activities are critical to prepare students
to thrive across the sciences. Educational
games are one such tool and gaining
popularity as a way to increase student
interest and participation in science.
There are two major challenges for
educational games. The frst challenge is
how to develop a game that will motivate
the individual to play without too much
diIfculty or Irustration. The second
challenge is how to make the game fun,
especially given students’ expectations
of an “educational game” from playing
popular commercial games, video games
in particular. If these challenges can be
met, however, games have the potential
to provoke students’ interest, challenge
their intellect, and provide a context in
which they achieve a sense of personal
accomplishment. While complex, games
can be effective if well designed.
Why Choose the Nitrogen Cycle?
The nitrogen cycle is a critical topic
area in many science disciplines, yet
learning about it can often be a daunting
task. Like many areas in science, learning
about the nitrogen cycle is commonly
focused on memorization and testing
by reciting the memorized material.
This process generally ends with the
information quickly being erased from the
mind…forget about applying the nitrogen
cycle to understand ecosystem processes!
While teaching the nitrogen cycle and the
importance of the cycle in soil biology
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
it became evident that these traditional
teaching and learning methods were not
suIfcient. The students could neither
retain the components of the nitrogen
cycle nor apply the information to more
complex situations or to solve problems.
The students were not engaged. Faculty
members and colleagues at the University
of Wisconsin-Madison decided it was
time to take action.
Nitrogen Game (NGame)
The “Nitrogen Game” (NGame)
was developed to bridge the gap between
traditional science instruction and student
learning and engagement. The NGame
was loosely modeled after successful
commercial card games, such as Pokemon
and Magic the Gathering. Students follow
the fate of nitrogen through its various
forms (i.e., nitrogen to ammonia to nitrites
to nitrates) while encountering various
events that infuence the environment
and each nitrogen form (Figure 1). Cards
are used to move nitrogen atoms (the
player) through the cycle. Specifcally,
Agent Cards (e.g., bacteria) convert
nitrogen among its molecular forms,
Resource Cards support the agent, and
Event Cards include natural occurrences
(e.g., lightning or droughts) that infuence
movement of nitrogen through the cycle
by altering the environment (Figure 2).
The frst player to have three molecules
of nitrogen move completely through
the cycle from dinitrogen gas back to
dinitrogen gas wins the game.
Evaluation of Learning Outcomes
Students greatly enjoyed playing the
NGame as it was developed. However,
the game developers wanted to know
– were the students understanding and
retaining the material by playing the
NGame? Was playing a game leading to
increased learning? To measure learning
outcomes acquired from playing the
NGame, students were asked to draw
the nitrogen cycle prior to and after
playing the NGame. These drawings, or
concept maps, illustrated the increase
in the student’s knowledge (i.e., more
information) and the student’s ability
to link information in a cyclic manner.
These results suggest there is short-term
improvement in learning outcomes for
students after playing the NGame.
Initial evaluation of the longer-term,
affective impacts of playing the NGame is
being completed. Survey assessments of
174 students enrolled in an introductory
microbiology course were completed
to identify the students’ interest in the
nitrogen cycle over the course of a
semester. Students were surveyed at two
34 Summer 2013 / LAKELINE
points during the semester: (1) directly
following a traditional lecture on the
nitrogen cycle and (2) two weeks later
after playing the NGame. The survey
assessment was constructed to target
student interest development (Hidi
Figure 1. Nitrogen Game (NGame).
Figure 2. Sample Agent Cards (hxes dinitrogen to organic-N), Resource Card (supports agent
activitv), and Event Cards (inßuence movement of nitrogen through the cvcle) from the Nitrogen
Game (NGame).
and Renninger 2006). Student interest
development was measured by the
student’s rating of agreement with a series
of statements about their participation
in the activity (i.e., lecture or lecture
and the NGame). Student responses to
these statements described the student’s
evaluation oI the scientifc content oI
the activity as interesting, meaningful,
important, and engaging on a scale from
1- 7 (7 being “very true”) (Table 1).
Surveyed students conveyed the
nitrogen cycle was more interesting while
playing the NGame opposed to solely
attending the lecture. At a probability
level of 0.05, mean responses were
signifcantly diIIerent (Welch t-test)
between the lecture-only students and the
lecture and NGame students for gained
interest (P · 0.001), identifed meaning
of the material (P < 0.001), and ability
to pay attention (P < 0.001). Responses
indicative of the learned information
being important did not differ between the
lecture-only and lecture + NGame student
participants (P= 0.79) (Figure 3).
The responses from the surveyed
introduction to microbiology students
suggest students are not only engaged in
the learning process (i.e., increase interest,
meaningful/useful material, and attentive),
but also view the game as an authoritative
source of important information and as
valuable as the lecture. These conclusions
are further supported by student feedback,
such as “the game helps your endurance,
iI you`re not just flling out worksheets
or reading the book, then you can kind-
of spend more time because you’re not
bored.” Students are frequently taught in
a linear fashion, but playing the NGame
was a beneft to the students because
they actively experienced the process,
which showed the importance and ability
to think cyclic. For example, students
shared, “When it’s a cycle it is hard to
read about” or “It (the NGame) showed
the different steps of the cycle and it was
good to see how everything ft together
overall it was fun!”
Games as a Teaching and Learning Tool
The NGame allows students to
learn through making decisions, choices
that may fail or succeed, in a complex,
cyclic system. Games as tools, such as
the NGame, foster critical thinking and
the ability to apply learned information
to gain an end result. Participation in the
NGame enhanced student development
of interest broadly in the nitrogen
cycle and effectively complimented
material presented by lecture. In fact,
while playing the game, many students
Summer 2013 / LAKELINE 35
Table 1. Survey Assessment Statements and Corresponding Measure of Student Interest in the
Instructional Activity.
Survey Statements Measure of Student Interest
This activity made the topic interesting. Interest
The way this activity presented the nitrogen cycle made the
information interesting to me Meaning
I found it easy to pay attention during this activity. Attention
I received important information from this activity. Importance
questioned how the decisions and
processes in the game translated to the
real world. The game activity encouraged
students to apply learned knowledge to
solve problems. Lecture and textbooks
alone will not bridge this gap.
The NGame is gaining international
recognition. From being presented at
the Ecological Society of America to
being played at international conferences
to being used in classrooms globally
and across the U.S., the success of the
game is spreading. If you are interested
in obtaining the NGame as a tool for
teaching and learning or even just to have
a bit of fun on a Friday night, the game
can be downloaded for free as a “print
and play” version, or it can be ordered
from a game manufacturer for the cost
of professional printing. Both options
are available at www.thenitogengame.
com. There is no doubt that learning the
nitrogen cycle will be fun!
Literature Cited
Baveler, D., C.S. Green, D. Hyun Han,
P.F. Renshaw, M.M. Merznich and D.A.
Gentile. 2007. Brains of video games.
Nature Reviews 12:763-768.
Böhmer, M.B., J. Hecht, A. K. Schönin
and G. Bauer. 2011. Falling asleep
with Angry Birds, Facebook and
Kindle – a large scale study on mobile
application usage. Proceedings of the
International Conference on Human
Computer Interaction with Mobile
Devices and Services (MobileHIC
2011), pg. 47-56.
Drew, D.E. 2011. STEM the Tide. John
Hopkins University Press, Baltimore,
Maryland, USA.
Hidi, S. and K.A. Renninger. 2006.
The four-phase model of interest
development. Educational Psvchologist
Prot, S., K.A. McDonald, C.A. Anderson
and D.A. Gentile. 2012. Pediatric Clinic
of North America 59:647-658 [doi
Woodin, T., D. Smith and D. Allen. 2009.
Transforming undergraduate education
for all students: an action plan for the
twenty-frst century. CBE- LiIe Science
Education 8:271-273.
Dr. Dana Bigham is a
postdoctoral associate with
Dr. Balser in the College
of Agricultural and Life
Sciences at the University
of Florida. Dana works to
enhance education in the
life sciences using her
broad teaching, research,
and community outreach experiences in the
aquatic sciences. Dana has served as the North
American Lake Management Society student board
member and currently represents the Florida Lake
Management Society as a board member.
Julie Collins is a graduate
student in agroecology
at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison where
she is conducting a mixed
methods study of student
experience with game
play in the classroom. Her
game of choice, the NGame, was developed by
her advisor Dr. Teresa Balser and a team of game
developers in UW’s Engage program. Focusing
on this game has allowed Julie to explore the
intersection of play, science, and student learning
narratives. Fascinated by alternative learning
space, Julie hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Education,
investigating the scientific learning that occurs in
urban agriculture settings.
Dr. Teri Balser is dean of
the College of Agricultural
and Life Sciences and
a professor of soil and
water science in Institute
of Food and Agricultural
Sciences at the University
of Florida. Active in science
education reform, Dr. Balser was the 2010 Carnegie
Foundation U.S. Professor of the Year (Doctoral
Degree Granting Institutions), and is currently a
Vision and Change Leadership Fellow in the NSF,
NIH and HHMI Partnership for Undergraduate Life
Sciences Education (PULSE). The NGame has been a
labor of love in collaboration with colleagues at the
University of Wisconsin Madison. c
Figure 3. Mean survev response (scale of 1- 7, with 7 being 'verv true`) of students participating
in learning the nitrogen cvcle bv lecture onlv or lecture and plaving the N Game. The four survev
responses target areas focusing on interest, meaning, attention, and importance of the nitrogen
cvcle. Mean signihcant differences (*) between the two groups of students are noted for each
response category.
Lecture Lecture and NGame



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