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Wednesday, August 21,2013

OU prof hits on right formula for teaching chemistry

By Fred Kight
Photo Credits: Photos provided by Eric Masson.
Photo Caption: ThThe Orgomino game.

Organic chemistry is a chemistry sub-discipline involving the study of matter that contains carbon atoms and is considered one of the toughest science courses around. But an Ohio University professor has come up with a way to help ease the pain for students here and possibly worldwide.

Eric Masson invented a computer game he's calling Orgomino and plans to use it in the classroom winter semester.

"Students sometimes use 'Orgo' as an abbreviation for organic chemistry," said Masson. "Since the game is reminiscent of a domino game, Orgomino came to mind quite naturally."

The project started several years ago when Masson noticed students in his general organic chemistry class struggling on tests. They were having trouble understanding chemical reactions.

"That's where the idea of the game came from," he said.

Masson came up with the idea of a study tool that involved playing cards. He gave them to students to try and they improved their test scores.

"It worked great and they really enjoyed it," he recalled. "I would say (there was) a 10-15 percent increase in the grades." 

The cards show reagents, reactants, reaction conditions, and products, and players use them to form chemical reactions. They are rewarded with points, and the player with the highest score wins.

The popularity of an early table-top version of the game created a problem – Masson could not produce sufficient numbers of hand-made cards to keep up with demand. He turned to John Bowditch at OU's Game Research and Immersive Design Laboratory.

The GRID Lab is a research and development center for computerized educational games. Bowditch is the director there, and in April, he and Masson starting collaborating on a computerized version of Orgomino.

"The most challenging part of the project was developing a game for a subject we know little to nothing about," said Bowditch. "Game development comes naturally to us, but organic chemistry not so much. So, developing a game with a limited understanding of organic chemistry has been an interesting challenge for us to overcome."

Another round of game testing and debugging was to take place this week. Masson will make the new computer version of the game available to students in January when he resumes teaching the undergraduate organic chemistry class.

Students can play Orgomino by themselves against the computer or in groups, and they will be able to buy a copy of the game to take home. Masson said the plan is to sell the game online at The App Store (on Apple products). For how much is yet to be determined.

Masson stressed that his most important motivation was "to have students master and enjoy organic chemistry." But he has invested "several hundred hours" in the project and is "confident" he and Ohio University "will generate significant profit" from the game.

After all, there is currently a huge interest in technologically advanced educational techniques and a new movement to make science more accessible via computers and mobile devices. And there is no other game like this for organic chemistry, according to Masson, so perhaps it could be sold to students around the globe. 

"You don't have to speak English to use it," said Masson. "The organic chemistry language is universal." And the curriculum "in the U.S. is quite standard… so (the game) can definitely be used nationwide and worldwide."

Masson designed Orgomino for play by undergraduate students but says other versions could be developed for graduate students. 

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