Science Rocks at Rice
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.
Tour, the Chao Professor of Chemistry and professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and of computer science, covers a lot of beats in the world of nanoscience at Rice, where he developed the first 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.
Tour, who developed “SciRave” as an extension of his NanoKids project, wants “SciRave” (called “SciJam” in its “Guitar Hero” incarnation) to feed the mind and body and believes that 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 said. “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.”
Tour went to eighth- and ninth-grade textbooks, reduced each chapter to about 10 bullet points and gave it to the composer, who converted the bullet points into lyrics with music.
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”). Tour went to eighth- and ninth-grade textbooks, reduced each chapter to about 10 bullet points and gave it to the composer, who converted the bullet points into lyrics with music. 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 1999 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. With undergraduate students Matt Szalkowski, Gustavo Chagoya Gazcon, Keenan May and Johnny Li handling game programming and Web design, the costs have been relatively low.
Downloading components for “StepMania” 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.
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.’”