Tuesday, January 17, 2017


As part of an entry to the US Department of Education's EdSimChallenge contest, a few students and I wrote a 2000+ essay describing our vision.  Since the course title Grand Challenge Design no longer communicated the meaning of the simulation itself, I rebranded GCD as the MiniCity Simulation.  I thought it was worth sharing our contest video and application.

Submission Description:
A classroom of student business owners cooperate and compete in connected industries to keep a 3D-printed miniature city full of digital citizens healthy and happy.

ENGAGEMENT: Describe your simulation concept, including an overview of the content and a brief walk-through of the planned user experience. Identify which types of learners your simulation will initially target. Describe how your simulation will engage users at a level on par with commercially available entertainment games.

MiniCity plays like a multiplayer game of SimCity on a physical game table built up by the class.

Students control physical land, digital money, and a Raspberry Pi computer and use these to build up a business empire. Students have a choice in where they make their investments: game industries include food production, transportation, energy, and housing. Each of these includes key components such as farms, grain mills, and grocery stores. Since all parts are interdependent, players need to monitor the decisions of their peers to decide where they can add the most value. As they engage in their role, students become emotionally invested in the outcomes of their companies.

Despite the individual autonomy over land and businesses, MiniCity is a cooperative game: the class collectively wins by maintaining an 80% happy population of virtual citizens (determined by income, housing, environment, and other factors). All players are punished by unhappy citizens through vacant properties and understaffed businesses.

Players also control governments at the county and town levels. They have the freedom to experiment with the system of government of their choice. They can also pass laws that levy taxes, ban industrial pollution, or regulate housing prices, with every action directly impacting gameplay. The social dynamics in our simplified prototype have already proven how engaged an entire class becomes when individual agendas and strategies collide with a class-controlled government.

The most important game mechanic that engages students is where the technical learning occurs: building new businesses. While basic farming simply requires the purchase of seeds and water, optimal farming requires a digitally-controlled irrigation system and grow lights. To implement this, a student has to program a Raspberry Pi computer to trigger lights to turn on and a pump to move actual water from the central river. In the housing industry, players build upgraded apartments by modeling it in CAD software and 3D-printing it. The teacher’s role is to support students as they physically build their empire.

The bare structure of the game empowers players to fill the gaps with their imaginations. Students stumble upon issues as they progress throughout the game rather than being presented a topic for the day by a teacher. In our alpha prototype, students have already formed intercity corporations, farming businesses, law firms, and banks. Others decided to work independently, becoming career politicians, freelance farmers, and electricians. In an infamous hostile takeover of the county government, engagement went through the roof as the class collectively shut down a student exploiting loopholes and redesigned the entire government to prevent future dictators. Most significantly, students come to class with better and deeper questions every day as we progress through the game: “How do stocks work?” “What is ROI?” “Why are 18 volts running through my pump on a 5-volt circuit?” “How does the government control land use?” “Who pays for roads?”

Most simulations teach the HOW of key skills. MiniCity, despite being much simpler to implement, engages students by making them ask WHY.

LEARNING OUTCOMES: Explain the desired change or transformation in the user’s knowledge and skills. What academic, technical, and employability skill-learning objectives will your simulation seek to transfer? Detail the subject area(s) and/or curricular area(s) that your simulation addresses. Briefly review how your simulation will communicate feedback to the user and instructor with respect to progress toward achievement of the learning outcomes.

Students develop skills in technology, social sciences, communication, and collaboration during gameplay. For a student to progress, they need to develop some sort of enterprise or employable skill. Students will learn to direct their own learning as needed by the game, resulting in one mastering software, another learning to build group consensus, and yet another becoming an expert on water pollution. In all paths, students need to understand the complex system of the interconnected industries and how one action affects other parts.

Along with business, students must learn about government to bring order and consistency to the game. The game begins with a bare-bones constitution, leaving students in charge of government structure, enforcement and interpretation of laws, and passing new regulations. Once laws are put in place, students read them closely to find loopholes, thus providing the authors with valuable feedback on legal writing.

On the game table, most buildings get upgraded by designing a CAD model and producing it with a 3D printer. Every in-game building has basic specifications that players need to meet in their model, thus demonstrating an understanding of this skill while completing a game task. To encourage every player to try a game action like this (rather than relying on specialists), discounts can be offered for the first building. If a teacher has specific content outcomes, she can create in-game objectives with financial bonuses. Students include pictures, screenshots, and short reflections to retain a record of their learning. All of this can be viewed in aggregate by the teacher, better enabling her to notice and intervene with students who are not progressing.

Most game systems require an electrical control system with lights, servos, and sensors connected to a Raspberry Pi computer. The systems communicate data to and from the game server or individual data-monitoring tools. This is the same technology that forms the heart of the Internet of Things. APIs and technical documentation simply become part of students’ daily experience in-game.

Most of the game server comes with no visual interface by design. Students use a Chrome add-on to post API requests to the game server to list products on the market, transfer money, or take any digital action. The inefficiency for people using the API offers an opportunity for players to start their own mobile app companies, selling subscriptions to use a simple, time-saving interface.

The most significant learning comes from exposure to the key themes of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges. These are huge, interdisciplinary problems such as providing clean water, restoring urban infrastructure, and securing cyberspace. The problems are embedded as tradeoffs during gameplay that require both diplomatic and technical solutions.

Again, MiniCity doesn’t teach the HOW of any of these skills, and yet in our prototype game, we found that it produced the motivation to learn all of these. Peers, online resources, and the teacher can all offer direction as students learn these skills -- the game simply gives them an immediate reason to care.

COMMITMENT: Describe your team and characterize its strengths and commitment. How is your team best suited to bring this concept to fruition? Describe how your team plans to develop your simulation over the course of the Challenge.

Unlike most teams, our simulation is teacher, student, and mentor-built. We play and develop the game as a class for 80 minutes daily during the school year. With an active role in the development of the very game they are playing, students develop a sense of ownership and are eager to contribute to the evolution of the course.

As the lead developer and teacher, my background spans engineering, entrepreneurship, and education. I graduated from Olin College of Engineering, a school built 15 years ago with the explicit goal of reinventing engineering education through hands-on, integrated coursework. I majored in computing, but outside of the classroom I was learning about and designing tools for innovative schools. Now, as a licensed teacher, I have been working to innovate school curriculum to engage students more holistically.

Development and continuous feedback are supported by the pilot class of 23 students. Half of our class days are spent designing and building the game with the remaining days focused on playing the prototype.

As a group, we work in fast two-week sprints to iterate the rules and introduce new game components. In November, we had a generic idea and rough set of rules. Now, we have a functional NodeJS game server, a home-brew CNC router operational and cutting out the hexagon-tiled surface of the 6’x13’ game table, our Raspberry Pis are successfully running a mentor-developed control system, and the game economy is relatively balanced.

Over the coming weeks, we are expanding the prototype to include virtual citizens, housing, and employees. Once implemented, we will rebalance the economy and continue adding new industry verticals one-at-a-time. The game board frame and river are ready and the surface will continue to be machined. Our subteams have clearly defined roles on build days. We are highly confident in our design and implementation processes and see the game developing significantly throughout the rest of the year.

After our initial success, our school district committed to the second year of our course, but this time I will be joined by two co-teachers licensed in social studies and language arts. In this integrated course, we will re-theme the game so that players experience the challenges of ancient city life throughout key periods of world history before advancing to the present. The three-teacher team is critical for clarifying and deepening the learning objectives embedded within the MiniCity simulation so that students can earn a variety of required credits in a single course block.

Moving beyond the small town of Byron, MN, I will leverage a broad base of teacher contacts locally and nationally through my blog, Twitter, and the Grand Challenge Scholars Program. I also have engineering contacts through Olin College with deep ties to progressive high schools. This network can be greatly expanded to many interested teachers with the help of the Department of Education and the EdSimChallenge contest.

IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGY: What tools, software, and/or hardware will be required to run your simulation in the classroom environment? Identify any anticipated logistical, technological, or economic barriers to deploying your simulation. Briefly preview your initial thoughts around distribution, implementation, and integration with existing and future technology. How do you plan to control the costs associated with purchase and maintenance of the simulation and associated technology?

MiniCity has a fully open and modular design. The only limitation from bringing it into another classroom is the teacher’s confidence jumping into a host of new technologies. Its dissemination will rely on a core group of innovative risk-takers to adapt and try the simulation at their school. This group can then mentor and encourage the next wave of teachers as they make it work for their students.

In order to ease the transition for new teachers to adopt MiniCity, a top priority over the next semester is compiling and creating tutorial videos that demonstrate the setup of the core technology. This will also help my own students as they try to efficiently share their different knowledge domains with one another.

Thankfully, cost is not one of the major barriers to implementation. By starting with almost no money ourselves, we designed with low-budget schools in mind. Through the physical game table, MiniCity immerses users without expensive VR sets or advanced PCs. We built and operate the digital game server at no cost. All electronics were sourced for incredibly low prices from China. All startup supplies for a class of 30, including 1:1 Raspberry Pi computers, can be purchased for under $3000, well within the range of a grant or many schools’ technology budgets. Adding 3D printers to this adds $400-$900 per unit. Ongoing costs for additional plastic filament and replacement electronics are under $1000/year.

By the end of the school year, the full game rules, technical documentation, parts lists, and software will be organized into a single website. The site will also include any learning resources we create or compile. Our goal is to make everything we do transparent and available for innovative teachers to jump right in. I am directly invested in this process of organizing as I prepare to bring two new teachers on-board at my school before next fall.

Ongoing maintenance will be a task for the open source community around the game. I intend to continually use MiniCity in my classroom for years to come and thus remain a core leader in its maintenance. Beyond free online support, I would run a summer workshop at our school to prepare groups of interested teachers and professors to launch their own MiniCities by the fall. My students or I could be contracted to provide further on-site or 1:1 support.

Once adopted, MiniCity can be significantly adapted to meet a variety of educational outcomes, including the world history theme that we will launch with our own students next fall. Re-theming the simulation is highly feasible for a variety of classroom content areas thanks to the modular application design.

LONG-TERM VISION: How might your simulation fit into a future ecosystem of simulations for career and technical education (CTE)? Briefly describe preliminary thinking around how your simulation could connect with other simulations through approaches to data handling, use of APIs, integration of open source tools, and/or implementation of Experience API (xAPI). Describe your vision for how the simulation could expand or scale. How could your simulation be built upon by other developers?

Within the world of simulations, MiniCity offers a break from VR sets and TV screens to put students face-to-face around a complex challenge. The broad nature of the experience gives students a chance to try out many roles -- business leader, congressperson, farmer, engineer, electrician -- without committing to a narrow track early in high school. My students and I believe that this simulation will be the catalyst that encourages students to go deeper with more focused, single-career simulations in future coursework.

The simulation software will generate key financial, health, and happiness metrics each day as it analyzes the decisions of the virtual citizens. From this data, it could export useful stats to xAPI or similar systems that universally track student actions. The open source tools would allow new teachers to see how an established system works and thus make their first course flow more smoothly.

The simulation will grow in multiple respects. New industries will be added as new microservices in the application. Political structures will evolve. Beyond gameplay, the simulation as a course can expand to formalize the education students receive in language arts and history. Over time, additional coursework including entrepreneurship, statistics, political science, and agriculture can all be integrated.

The most exciting possibility for MiniCity is the chance to directly connect with additional sites around the nation and world. Rather than simply selling goods at the ports “overseas”, students would now be able to actually sell their goods through a peer-to-peer market to another classroom. Prices for virtual materials and services would be shared via API requests between MiniCity simulations. A new layer of government, the state, could be composed of student representatives from dozens of classrooms who are working to pass fair laws across the entire system. This opens a whole new world for trade, business, entrepreneurship, and politics. The learning experience gains value as you incorporate more and more students, and even community mentors, outside of a single classroom.

These classrooms could also connect outside of the game to present their learning at conferences and organize social meetups. In particular, the social network of the teachers would stay tightly connected online as we support each other in the implementation of our shared virtual society. The social integration and buy-in of a worldwide group of teachers may be the most powerful opportunity for MiniCity to advance engaging student learning.

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