July 09, 2018

Rogers Science Program Gives Student-Faculty Research a Strong Foundation

At Lewis & Clark, where students learn science by doing science, collaborative research with professors is an academic hallmark. The John S. Rogers Science Program supports several such projects each summer, and this year included multidisciplinary research with an especially timely goal: create a computer game that will teach users how to act in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

by Emily Price BA ’18

Every summer, students who participate in our John S. Rogers Science Program spend 10 weeks conducting research alongside faculty, preparing for careers in science, and developing the skills necessary to communicate the essentials of their research. This year, an interdisciplinary team of four professors, in collaboration with student research assistants Rachel Aragaki BA ’19 (environmental studies and music), Peter Huizenga BA ’20 (computer science and mathematics), and Gabriel Mertz BA ’20 (computer science and mathematics), will develop a video game that teaches survival skills following an earthquake.

The faculty team, comprised of Associate Professor of Computer Science Peter Drake, Associate Professor of Psychology Erik Nilsen, Associate Professor of Geological Science Elizabeth Safran, and Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies Bryan Sebok, theorized several years ago about creating a video game to promote disaster preparedness. They observed that traditional mass media, which has been successful in public health campaigns against issues like smoking or drug use, generally fails to be effective in alerting and educating the public about preparing for natural disasters.

“It’s hard to find a one-liner for earthquake preparedness that’s meaningful, and that also applies to everybody,” Safran explained. “The circumstance-specific, nuanced nature of disaster preparedness entails thinking through what problems you’re going to solve and how you’re going to solve them based on the resources you have. Video games really are tools of learning, because you’re solving problems when you figure out how to succeed in a game. It has the openness and flexibility to allow users to try out experiences and solve problems in different ways depending on their abilities and resources. And that, I think, can really help people to feel this information is meaningful for them—that it connects to their particular problems, and that they can uncover ways of solving those problems.”

Nilsen and Safran found echoes of this problem in social psychology research, such as the theory of framing messages to make them more effective. Along with Sebok and Drake, they eventually began involving their classes in the project, seeing an opportunity to bring their own interests into dialogue with their students’ ideas.

“I’ve always loved playing and designing games,” said Drake, whose software development course built a working prototype of the game last semester. “I saw this as an opportunity to combine my hobby with my work. My students and I have jumped at the chance to dig into professional video game development tools, allowing us to make games that would have taken vastly longer to program from scratch. And better yet, this effort will save lives in the future.”

The game is targeted specifically at 18 to 26 year olds, a demographic that public health and emergency services agencies often find difficult to reach. But they could be crucial in performing physical tasks during an emergency—they are relatively healthy, often well-educated or speak multiple languages, and frequently serve as ambassadors for their families and communities. However, most young people have little or no experience with earthquakes. In addition, many are not yet financially secure and can be less embedded in residential communities, leaving them isolated in moments of crisis.

“For me, this age group is really interesting,” said Safran. “They’re in this kind of liminal space where they’re under-messaged, they have less experience, but they have a lot of latent capacity for helping out in these kinds of situations. If we can engage this group and really bring out those capacities, while reducing their vulnerabilities, it’s a big win.”

This summer, the team plans to measure how people interact with the game in different circumstances, then develop a more advanced version. This is where the Rogers Program students come in: over the course of 10 weeks, they will conduct a series of tests to determine how people respond in-game when they are given more or fewer resources to complete a required task. For example, in one scenario, the player character must acquire iodine tablets to purify water and must also find a wrench to shut off a faulty gas valve. Resource-rich characters may simply purchase both items; resource-poor characters, on the other hand, must seek out and interact with members of their apartment building, exchanging some of their purified water in order to borrow the wrench from a neighbor. This kind of problem-solving promotes exactly the mindset Safran says is so important in disaster situations: being familiar with members of one’s community, and cooperating with them in moments of crisis.

“I’m incredibly excited to have this opportunity to do summer research,” said Aragaki. “I almost applied to art school in order to study game design, so this has been a really fun and exciting opportunity to try something I’ve always been interested in. I think the research and experimentation will be very transferable to any future work, and it’s extremely enlightening to be able to work with so many great faculty members.”

For now, the project is still in its earliest stages. Ultimately, however, the team hopes to create a comprehensive transmedia campaign for earthquake preparedness, including social media campaigns, short films, and organized meetups, to promote greater awareness and community involvement in Portland and beyond.

The full schedule of presentations by Rogers Summer Science Program participants can be found here. All presentations are free and open to the public.

Environmental Studies

Computer Science

Rhetoric and Media Studies