Computers in the Classroom make Learning a Game

Today's generation of college students grew up with computer games, so it should come as no surprise that university professors have turned to the genre to illuminate classroom concepts. But to ISyE faculty, computer games are more than just a fun way to learn. These games have an ability to illustrate models that is far superior to conventional classroom techniques.

"When you're a teacher in a classroom, and you're supposed to cover a topic, it is easy to get very specific and not worry about the linkages to everything else the students are going to have to learn," says Paul Griffin, Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies. "Playing these games really helps tie together what they learn in other courses, along with things they haven't learned — to see that everything you do really impacts the other things."

Griffin is interested in getting more gaming into the curriculum, and ISyE faculty are taking him up on that challenge. Below, we look at two of the games already integrated into the ISyE curriculum, and two that faculty are polishing in hopes they will be included soon.

The Beer Game

Originally a management tool, the Beer Game was developed at MIT in the 1960s to introduce people to the concepts of system dynamics. Since then, it has been played all over the world by a wide range of participants at all levels. But it is really a supply chain game, says Griffin. "Students play a particular component in the supply chain, so there will be a group in the bottling plant, another group that is the distribution center, the retail outlet, the manufacturing plant and so on." The instructor then issues demand, which is unknown to the supply chain. "It is very simple in that each group gets demand from their downstream customer, and then satisfies that demand over 30 periods."

"The further you are away from the customer, the more variability you get in terms of inventory," says Griffin. "Then you can start talking about how to share information and coordinate activities." Students are currently using the Beer Game in ISyE 3103, Introduction to Supply Chain Modeling: Logistics.

Readers can try the game for themselves at the MIT Forum for Supply Chain Innovation:

Littlefield Technologies

Littlefield Technologies was one of the first academic computer games, developed by Professors Samuel C. Wood and Sunil Kumar at Stanford University. It is a virtual factory that students must manage 24 hours a day on the Internet. Originally designed for MBA courses, the tool has proven to be equally successful with engineering schools, says Professor Jim Dai, one of the professors using the game in ISyE 3232, Stochastic Manufacturing and Service Systems.

"What is interesting about this game is that it plays on the Internet, with no special software, and no IT support — which makes it attractive," says Dai. The game runs on the server that is maintained by a commercial company that is based in Berkeley, and students purchase an access code at the beginning of the semester.

Teams of four students play in real time — one or two weeks — with one week representing a year. "The manufacturing system involves a lot of decisions, including when and how much to source raw materials, how many machines to purchase, and the lead time quotation. If they ship late, the product gets discounted, and if it is late for two days, they don't earn any revenue," says Dai. "Once the game starts, the system will evolve, even if the students decide to do nothing. The goal at the end of the game is to have the highest cash value." While playing, teams know the cash values of the other teams, but not the other teams' management decisions. As teams have the option to dynamically make decisions, analyzing opponents rankings early on doesn't mean anything.

"The game simulates a very realistic manufacturing system," says Dai. "After playing this game, students have a perception of a concrete manufacturing system. In the classroom, I just have to mention it; I don't have to explain it from scratch and take up a lot of class time."

The use of Littlefield Technologies is just one method ISyE has adopted to enhance ISyE 3232, formerly Probabilistic Operations Research, named least useful course in the early 1990s in an ISyE alumni survey. Dai also asks students to read The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, by E.M. Goldratt and J. C. Cox. Though novels are an unusual resource for engineering courses, The Goal is widely heralded for its interesting and attention-holding way of presenting management and accounting theories such as the Theory of Constraints. Dai describes it as "almost a love story. It explains terms, like bottlenecks and variability, that we're going to cover in class."

The Inventory Routing Game

Professor Martin Savelsbergh and his graduate students are in game designing mode. Their first is called, for lack of a better name, the Inventory Routing Game.

The logistics environment is ripe for games that help students truly grasp the complexity of the logistics system, says Savelsbergh. "It lets them experience what it means to be in such an environment," he says. "Secondly, they should be controlling this system. They should make decisions about sending out the truck to pick up or deliver. They have to realize that once they have made a decision, there is no turning back. They may find out they waited too long."

Savelsbergh's game, designed for a master's level logistics course, is controlled either by an individual or group of students. They control the environment for a simulated week, and at the end, teams compare incurred costs. The competitive factor gives the game another edge over textbooks and class lecture.

"The benefit for the students is that they really experience the system and immediately see the effect that their control decisions have. They learn much more quickly this way, gaming is fun, and they are competing against each other," says Savelsbergh. He adds that the method is particularly useful in real-time transportation, logistics, and inventory.

"We haven't done a serious analysis of the effectiveness of the game," Savelsbergh continues, "but we will in the near future. Games aren't suited for everything you want to teach, but especially for these real-time dynamic situations, it is the best way to go. People need to understand the complexity of the systems."

Savelsbergh hopes to market the Inventory Routing Game. "There aren't that many games out there at this level. The representation is fairly close to reality. The Beer Game is extremely simple compared to what we try to do," he says. "Developing such games at the level we want them is very time consuming. If you invest the time to do that, you should do more than just teach your students."

He adds that he and his campus colleagues are considering starting a center at Georgia Tech to develop such games. "Teaching in the future won't be what it used to be. It will have less lecturing and will be more tool-based. We're brainstorming the best way to move forward in a structured way."

The Supply Chain Game

Professor Leon McGinnis, Associate Professor Christos Alexopoulos and Assistant Professor Stylianos Kavadias of the DuPree School of Management are working to break new ground with their Supply Chain Game, which McGinnis believes is the first of its kind. "We play on a network," he says. "That ratchets up the level of the game, because you have to manage all the levels of interaction of the players, just like in real life."

"Simple business simulations, like the beer game, have proven remarkably effective instructional tools for explaining supply chain, but are typically narrowly focused." says Alexopoulos. "Participants in the beer game, for example, are only concerned with inventory of a single product and can only control it via the size of their orders to their supplier. Further, in typical business simulations, teams of players running identical organizations compete head-to-head in a computer-generated market. This represents an idealized competitive situation more typical of team sports than of globally competitive business and is antithetical to the concept of supply chains."

The Supply Chain Game, focused on the automotive industry, is a multilevel scenario. "Students play the role of a decision maker in a supply chain," says McGinnis. The roles range from suppliers to second tier producers and auto assemblers; the game models the various markets. "The students must decide how much capacity to provide and at what price. If they are a supplier, they must negotiate contracts. If they are a final assembler, they decide how many to produce. And they have a deadline when the decisions must be entered."

Participants enter decisions on a quarterly basis. "The decisions are put together in the competitive framework," says McGinnis. "Then they see how many they sell. They won't necessarily sell as many as they've planned, because they might run into quality problems," he adds.

"The game aims to reflect the decisions made by each of the involved parties and the influence of these decisions along a supply chain," says Alexopoulos. "In particular their effects on upstream and downstream operations."

The team has been working on the game for the past year, with funding from General Motors and the Georgia Tech Modeling and Simulation Research and Education Center and assistance from doctoral candidates Ralph Mueller, Melda Ormeci, and Wuthichai Wongthachanekorn. This summer it will face its first test, with 12 students fine tuning the moves. "The nice thing about it is that all the players essentially interact through a browser," says McGinnis. "We can have teams from all over the world." If things go well, it will be introduced into ISyE transportation and logistics classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. They hope it will eventually be added to continuing education courses, offered on-line similarly to the Littlefield Technologies game.

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