Thanks to a $4.5 million grant awarded to the University of Wisconsin by the National Science Foundation, middle school kids and undergraduates will finally be able to say computer games are helping them learn rather than turning their brains to mush.

According to professor of educational psychology David Williamson Shaffer, the funds will be used to develop and conduct research on two games.

“Urban Science” is a game in which middle school students are urban planners, and it will be used to study how the students learn about environmental science as well as economic and social issues in their communities, according to Shaffer.

Despite this, Shaffer said the main goal of the research is not about what the students learn, but rather how well the game teaches students about urban planning and problem solving.

“The focus of our research is actually on whether or not we can build computer-generated characters that can do the bulk of the teaching in the game,” Shaffer said.

Of the funds, $300,000 will be used to create a system that assesses how students think in different areas, from urban planning to journalism, which, combined with the creation of computer-generated characters, could significantly impact the education system.

“If we can solve the problems of creating realistic and effective computer-generated mentors … then we have a way of building games that teach all kinds of complex thinking and of measuring whether or not kids have learned how to solve real problems,” Shaffer said.

In response to the belief computer games do nothing to stimulate brain activity, Shaffer said they not only stimulate learning, but they also allow students to learn problem-solving skills in a real-world setting.

“Computer games are more authentic than what we do in schools today [because] they make it possible to have kids learn by doing things that are actually meaningful to the world,” he said.

The other game involved in the grant, “Nephrotex,” will use $500,000 of the funds to give engineering program undergraduates, who are bombarded by math and physics courses, a glimpse into the kind of work real engineers do.

“If they have a chance to see how [what] they’re learning gets used in the real world … they’ll understand how those pieces fit together better,” Shaffer said.

An additional $200,000 will be used to have students develop aspects of the “Nephrotex” game, which will then be used in an introduction to nanotechnology course currently in development, according to Wendy Crone, professor of engineering physics.

Crone said the course would be available within the next year and will be part of a new certificate program in nanotechnology that should be available in about two years.

When asked about the impact of “Nephrotex” on students, Crone said it will give students an edge in a world where the need for a nanotechnology-trained work force is growing.

“We’re actually expecting that the nanotechnology certificate is going to give students training that will make them very competitive,” she said.