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Northwestern Professor Teaches Environmental Sustainability with Games

By Joe Giovannetti
“How do people learn?”

Michael Horn, Associate Professor of Learning Sciences and Computer Science at Northwestern University, posed this question when he spoke with the MSLCE cohort last week about Green Home Games: a company that aims to raise awareness about environmental sustainability through gaming.

Through his research, Horn has found that people learn by actively participating in a “community of practice.” In order to create this sense of community, he seeks to “recapture” the gaming experience by introducing innovative technology that encourages people to interact with the real world, an idea he explains as “tangible interaction.”

Horn presented his ideas in action through his latest project “Invasion of the Energy Monsters,” a spooky board game adventure in which energy heroes fight against monsters that seek to waste precious energy in their house. Each time the monsters leave the bathroom lights on, run the dishwasher on heated-dry mode, or start a half-filled load of laundry, the watt-level on an energy meter (projected on an iPad) rises and makes it more difficult for the heroes to win.

Horn is also working on introducing a device that the players plug into their home’s digital smart meters. This device projects the actual amount of electricity being used in the house, providing a real-time visual aid that shows the amount of energy the players use on a daily basis.

Although he aims to educate, Horn stressed the importance of “fun first.” His statement was clear: “If it’s not fun, you’ve lost before you started.” Once the MSLCE students got a chance to interact with his projects, it was clear that Horn truly knows how to inspire fun. The graduate students had to be pried away from the game table, due to the innovative and exciting experiences that the games created.

As a speaker, innovative technologist, and environmental educator, Professor Michael Horn can be summed up in one quote from the MSLCE program director, Pablo Boczkowski: “People who are smart, fun, and cool are few and far between.” Horn embodies these adjectives by using his talents and passions to make the world a better, more informed place.

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