Science rocks at Rice

Rice researchers get hip, use video games to teach kids

Rice News staff

You wouldn’t expect to hear the words “James Tour” and “Guitar Hero” in the same sentence.

Until now.

The much-honored Rice University professor and a team of students have been working away on a set of songs for the popular video game that mixes a little science with a lot of shred.

And for those who’d rather move their feet than their fingers, well, Tour’s got something for them, too.


James Tour

Rice chemist James Tour and his team developed SciRave to work the basics of a science education into "Guitar Hero" and "StepMania," both proven winners in the world of video games. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

nanocar and recently ushered in a breakthrough in graphene that may make memory for computers and devices cheap and plentiful.

His new twist isn’t meant for scientists, but for scientists-to-be. “SciRave,” developed through a grant from the National Science Foundation, aims to work the basics of a science education into “Guitar Hero” and “StepMania,” both proven winners in the world of video games.

“Teachers have told me they can use this in their classrooms,” said Tour, who has been developing “SciRave” for a year and a half but thinking about it for much longer as an extension of his NanoKids project. “They have to spend a lot of time working with some students, and said it would be great to have something in the back of the room where the other kids could go to work off steam.”

These games fit the bill. In “Guitar Hero,” players use a guitar-like controller to match an on-screen light pattern programmed to the beats of popular songs. The better the match, the higher the score. In “Step Mania,” an open-source emulator of the popular “Dance Dance Revolution,” players follow the patterns on a computer keyboard or, ideally, with their feet on an electronic dance pad.

Tour wants “SciRave” (called “SciJam” in its “Guitar Hero” incarnation) to feed the mind and body. “People have advised me that if kids think they’re being tested, they’ll reject this. And the truth is, there’s an element of brainwashing here, but I want the concepts to come off in a subtle way.”

Plus, all work and no play is not necessarily the best way to teach material that can be abstract at best.

“Finnish kids are blowing everyone away, science-wise,” he continued. “In Finland, they alternate 20 minutes of instruction with 20 minutes of play. There’s a lot to be said for not making a kid who’s bursting with energy sit in a seat for two hours straight.”

“SciRave,” the “Step Mania” game, is meant to get kids on their feet while feeding them basic concepts. Two sample songs on the SciRave Web site put cellular biology to a funk-metal track (“All the Pieces”) and a robotic reading of measurements to a scratch beat (“SI System”).

“When we decided to do this, I’d go into eighth- and ninth-grade textbooks, reduce each chapter down to about 10 bullet points and give it to our composer. He’d convert those to lyrics and write the music,” said Tour. The repetitive natures of metal, hip-hop and scratch make the styles perfect for embedding scientific concepts in young minds.

The compositions are by Bram Barker, a graduate of Rice’s Shepherd School of Music now living and working in Japan, and Aidin Ashoori, a Martel College sophomore and biochemistry major who also writes music for video games.

“I told them up front, ‘Look, I’m not qualified to judge here. You critique each other,'” said Tour, whose own students have been beta testing the Web site and game play. “Most of them have told me it’s quality stuff.”

With undergraduate students Matt Szalkowski, Gustavo Chagoya, Keenan May and Johnny Li handling game programming and Web design, the costs have been relatively low, Tour said.

Downloading components for “Step Mania” or “Guitar Hero” from the site gets users a half-dozen or so songs for the games, which can be played on a computer with or without dedicated controllers. All of the downloads are free, and Tour intends for them to remain so. “We need about double the number of songs we have now to make it substantial,” he said.

The big question among Tour’s colleagues is, of course, has he tried out the dance pad? He admitted he has, sort of. “I watched my son do the dance pad, and he was very good. I tried it for about five seconds and said, ‘This isn’t possible for me.'”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.