Hypertext Student Newsletter: When a PDA is a Hot Potato

When a PDA is a Hot Potato: Pocket PC Game Developed for Plant Biology Course

By Aldrich Tan, Sophomore, English & Asian American Studies Major

Professor Shackel’s vocabulary game makes good use of PocketPCs by displaying technical words and phrases on the hand-held PDA screen. Students must beat the timer in defining the terms to their classmates and quickly pass the PDA on to the next student.

" It's a short, woody perennial," one student shouts out to the rest of his Plant Biology (BIS 1C) discussion group team. He fidgets with the PocketPC, lent to him by his professor. The colorful round circle at the top of the PC screen turns emergency red. His classmates ponder what he is talking about. "BUSH!" another student shouts just as the PocketPC beeps and the words "Game Over" flash on the screen. "We were so close!" another student mutters. "Let's play again!"

While this lively group of students may seem to be playing a video game instead of tending to coursework, they are actually doing exactly as their professor asked. They are working their way through Pomology Professor Ken Shackel's "Beat Around the Short Woody Perennial" (or "Beat" for short), an interactive Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) game that allows them to practice explaining their plant biology vocabulary words.

Program developer Earl Schellhous says "Beat" is like a high tech version of "Hot Potato." After a clock on the PDA is set, one player is given a word (such as "bush") for which he must provide hints to his team in order to provoke them to guess the word. This forces the student to use scientific terminology ("short, woody perennial" for "bush"). When the team guesses correctly, it passes the PocketPC to the next team. Th e team that has the PDA when time runs out loses.

The PDA "hot potato" features an animated circular timer. "As time runs out in the game, the small circle at the top of the screen moves from green to yellow and from yellow to red," Schellhous explains.

Ken Shackel proposed the idea for the game to Mediaworks in hopes that it would make the vocabulary-learning process easy, enjoyable and interactive for his students. "The game allows the students to have fun with the vocabulary and think about how it is related to other concepts they're learning," he says.

Shackel originally presented a draft version of the game to his Winter Quarter BIS 1C class. He was pleased to find that "many of the students enjoyed it."

According to Shackel, students can download the game from his Web site and upload it onto their PocketPCs. Schellhous adds that although the game currently runs only on certain Windows CE platforms, he is working on making the program more compatible for multiple kinds of PDA devices.

"Certain specialized areas, such as the medical school, encourage students to use a tool that will always have a special niche in the learning process. I'd like to see us develop more programs for PDAs."