App brings disaster into your classroom

(Last Updated On: September 19, 2019)

From storm to tsunami to zombie apocalypse, a new augmented reality app aims to help teach young students how to react in an emergency and will be available before October’s nationwide ‘ShakeOut’ drill, writes Melanie Langlotz.

 Schools have been looking for new digital resources to teach emergency management in the classroom for a while and demand has increased through recent floods, storms, landslides, and earthquakes.

So, the Auckland Emergency Management (AEM) team decided to step into action and develop a fun augmented reality (AR) mobile game for students aged 6-11 years old. The game is based on the Emergency Management brand ‘What’s the Plan Stan’, which features a little hero dog, Stan, in a blue and yellow cape who guides the players through six emergency scenarios: Storm; Flood; Earthquake; Tsunami; Volcanoes; and, for good measure, a Zombie Apocalypse!

Gamified learning has become very popular as a teaching aid to raise student engagement and discovery-based learning. If a player fails inside the game, it can be a positive lesson learned without serious consequences (as it’s only a game), but a valuable lesson learned in preparation for real life.

While some parents and teachers may cringe thinking of the increasing time kids spend in front of devices, what’s unique about the ‘What’s the Plan Stan’ game is players don’t sit down to play but have to physically move through the game world to collect items for the virtual emergency box, do the drop, cover, hold earthquake drill, and pay attention to typical hazards occurring during emergencies. If the weather allows, students are encouraged to play the game outside in the school sports field, which requires even more physical activity to complete all six emergency scenarios.

During the game testing phase, the team (Geo AR Games and AEM) visited Laingholm Primary School in Auckland, which was one out of five early tester schools to gather feedback from students. The school field had been turned into a swamp that day due to heavy flooding, so the decision was made to test in the school hall.

The players were aged between 8 and 10 years old and put into pairs with a mobile tablet. Within minutes, they were jumping through the room with excitement, ducking, diving, turning and hiding under nearby chairs and tables for their earthquake drill. After about 15 minutes the first savvy gamers had completed all six levels and asked if they could play again. Some students started helping others who got stuck on a certain level and explained which hazards to look out for or what emergency kit items needed to be collected to complete the level.

Measure learning

After about 25 minutes of the students getting a decent work out despite being inside and playing mobile games, the Auckland Emergency Management team and the Geo AR Games developers sat the kids down to measure how much they had learned about emergency management. The students had no problem reciting all 12 items, such as a torch, batteries, face or dust mask or googles for their virtual emergency kit. The team did learn though that many children didn’t know the difference between a First Aid kit and an emergency kit. When asked if they had an emergency or Get-Away kit at home, most said no, or they didn’t think they did.

Moving on to the hazards during the various game levels, such as storm and flood, revealed that students remembered very well if they had lost a game life by getting, for instance, too close to a fallen power line and got zapped. Some had walked too close to brick walls in the earthquake level and learned that the wall might collapse, or they could fall into one of the virtual cracks thatopened up in the ground, which meant they had to replay the game level. Each level also taught the players whether to evacuate, get to higher ground or stay indoors to be safe. Before playing the game, some students confused the earthquake drill ‘Drop, Cover, Hold’ with the fire drill ‘Stop, Drop, Roll’, but were clear on which was which after playing the game.

The students had playfully absorbed 80 per cent of the content during just one short session and were able to discuss real-life scenarios they had experienced in the past and what they would now look out for and do differently. One student recalled going out into the flooded zones with his Dad in a kayak but had learned from playing the game that floodwaters can be very dangerous and could kill someone.

So, what about the zombie level in the game? Was that really necessary? Well, kids love zombies and we wanted to make sure that we had a strong motivation for the kids to play each level through and, therefore, put this particular level last. But every level teaches something and, in this one, students learn not to leave anyone behind and to take care of each other and get them to safety.

Accelerometer, compass, and magnetometer

While it’s easy to integrate the game into a single lesson and repeat it as it suits the timetable, not every mobile tablet is compatible with the game technology. The devices have to have three hardware sensors: an accelerometer, compass, and magnetometer. A GPS also helps when playing outdoors but is not essential. While iPads and iPhones have all these sensors by default, not every Android device does, and Chromebooks are not suitable for the AR game at all. However, the teams are already in discussion with the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) and Earthquake Commission (EQC), who endorse the game and are looking at also releasing a Desktop and Chromebook version to make the resource available for a wider demographic. Both the AR game and the desktop game will also feature multiple languages, which are currently Te Reo, English, Mandarin Chinese, and Japanese.

It’s been a challenging but enjoyable and highly rewarding experience developing the app. The official release will be ready to download as a free resource for schools in time for the nationwide ‘ShakeOut’ drill on 17 October. We can’t wait to see teachers bringing these disasters into their classrooms!



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