Lumen Scholar’s gaming app promotes STEM concepts

Thomas Price ‘13 developed a mobile application for middle and high school students to create their own video games using math and science principles.

Elon University senior Thomas Price with his Lumen Prize mentor, Joel Hollingsworth, chair of the Department of Computing Sciences
Elon University senior Thomas Price found his life’s passion as a middle school student when he tinkered with the programming code to a computer video game. Even today, just weeks from graduating with a degree in computing sciences, he’s still amazed that a hobby is now his future career.

But rather than just something that will earn him a paycheck, Price sees computer programming as a tool to educate and entertain, and the recipient of Elon University’s top prize for undergraduate research has set his sites on recruiting young adolescents into the fields of science and math.

How? By helping them build their own video games.

Under the guidance of a faculty mentor, the native of Chapel Hill, N.C., developed an application to assist middle and high school students in building video games on mobile Android devices. In the process, young gamers will be introduced to basic math and physics concepts that Price hopes will encourage them to study STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – in college.

Price’s work is the most recent in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Prize scholars in the Class of 2013.

“The most important issues is to ask whether we’ve given students all of the opportunities they can have to study something that might become a passion to them,” said the Elon Honors Fellow. “A lot of educational games don’t target the high school or young college student audiences. Are there games that can inspire someone to study something?”

Research has shown that video games and video game making have potential educational value. There has also been plenty of public angst at the lack of young people electing to enter careers in the sciences or math. For Price, that illuminates a potential market for games that can target youth at a point in their lives where they can still choose to pursue STEM disciplines.

And it’s done in a subtle way. Using terminology like “variable” and “velocity,” the free application guides users through a process that is light on the theory and heavy on the fun as they slowly build a world of their own imagination. There are limits, of course. There won’t be three-dimensional role-playing games that emerge from his gaming app, but for Price, that isn’t the goal.

“It’s designed to expose kids to concepts they’ll come across in STEM education,” he explained. “Not teach them, per se, but expose them in a positive light.”

Working with students hired using Lumen Prize funding has taught Price ways to collaborate with others versed in artistic design. Price said he can program the controls for a game that can look much like the classic Super Mario Bros., but when it comes to scenery or character appearance, he sought assistance from those with design expertise.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances

“We believe that these kids will learn a lot from this game-creation process while being entertained and motivated,” said Joel Hollingsworth, Price’s Lumen Prize mentor and chair of the Department of Computing Sciences. “I am still amazed at the quality and scope of the project that he has been able to accomplish and am excited to see what he does next.”

Price will present his work this month at the 27th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and has already taken part in the North Carolina Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium. He’ll take his enthusiasm for computer programming to N.C. State University this fall when he begins work toward his doctorate.

Just don’t expect him to limit himself to the halls of academia. The game app, which he has yet to name, is not just a research project. Price insists that anything he does with his research project must be available to the public, at little or no cost, as a way to give back and motivate those who come behind him.

“Anything you spend 40 hours a week doing should help people,” he said. “If all you see from your work is a paycheck, you’re doing something wrong.”