Dr. Jim Tour's office at Rice University may be the last place you'd consider for jamming out to dance tracks.
But you'd be wrong.
The dance rhythms pumping out of Tour's speakers are the direct result of a conversation he had with one of his students about two years ago.
"She was saying how tired she was because some guys above her where she was living on campus were playing DDR. And I said DDR? I'm not familiar with DDR. And she says you don't know about DDR? I said no. She says Dance Dance Revolution? I said no. And I said tell me about it. And she said oh well you dance to a series of lights on a pad. And I looked at what DDR was and I thought that this would be a wonderful thing that we might be able to build in for an educational program with children."
So Tour developed a method for incorporating science concepts into music-based video games. He borrowed his son's 7th grade textbooks for content. And he enlisted his students to come up with music, lyrics and graphics that would pass the toughest test of all: the coolness factor.
"I am certainly not the type that plays all sorts of games like this. So I wanted it to be cool, so I told the composer look, we've got to come up with some really cool-sounding music. And he said look, for the first few songs they won't even know that there's science in it."
"We have a song called the SI System."
"So you go from a meter to a kilometer...keeps repeating over and over again what each one of these words means, so that after you've gone through that song a few times you understand what deci is, you understand what kilo is. You could go in and take an exam and just start reciting the song to yourself and answer the questions as to what each of these units are."
Educators have long used music to teach concepts. That's how most of us learned our ABCs. But Tour says the method needed to be updated from the days of singing along to a bouncing ball to reach the Wii generation.
"And I know that many of my colleagues think it's scandalous, what I'm doing, because many would say oh, this is just games. But my reply to that would be well, your just education isn't working. Children are moving very far away from education, and so somehow we've got to try something different."
Tour's project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Educational video games are an emerging trend, although not yet mainstream. But Tour says he already received the most important thumbs-up he could get.
"My 13-year-old, who played it, said 'Dad this is cool'."
The two games, SciRave and SciJam, are available for free download. To learn more, visit http://www.jmtour.com/scirave.htm.
Laurie Johnson. KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.