For the last six months, in parallel with the research work we’ve been documenting here on our Learning Laboratory site, we at Sheridan Programmers Guild have been building some custom software for a truly remarkable customer.
Dr. Meghan Jeffres is an Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Roseman University of Health Sciences in Henderson, Nevada. She is a specialist in infectious diseases (ID). She teaches courses in statistics and infectious diseases to pharmacy and dental students in a classroom setting and precepts pharmacy students and medical residents in a clinical setting.
Meghan is a fiercely dedicated educator. She pours energy and intellect into constructing effective learning environments for her classroom students and her clinicians. One innovation she has developed is a card game called Infectious Diseases Gin Rummy. The game, played in a group setting, gives students a fun and challenging way to master the complex, three-dimensional relationships between:
- the pathogens that cause infectious diseases,
- the array of antibiotics available for treatment, and
- the many other factors that affect a clinician’s choice of treatment.
In 2011, Meghan published a paper describing the game’s effectiveness as a teaching tool in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (AJPE). From the introduction to that paper:
When employed properly, educational games build knowledge and skills and are enjoyable for the participants and appeal to students’ competitive nature, which motivates them to play the game. Educational games often promote higher level discussions which help to enhance the communication, social interaction, and critical-thinking skills essential in health care. The games also allow health care educators to create real-life scenarios without real-life consequences. The format of educational games creates a setting that decreases student stress and facilitates student learning.
Because we “do phone apps,” Meghan was referred to me early last year when she wanted to create an electronic version of her game. We tossed around a lot of ideas but pretty quickly agreed on building an online, solitaire variant of the original. That game was released at the beginning of January and employed immediately in a two-week intensive ID course that Meghan teaches every year.
Meghan makes an ideal customer for a custom software developer:
- She’s very focused on WHAT she wants to accomplish but not all tied up in knots about HOW that needs to be done, technically.
- She’s really open to input and creative ideas from others but also able to make decisions quickly and finally — no second guessing!
- She also works in a ‘learning profession’ and understands that development estimates and final features are all subject to the remarkable amount of learning that goes into every development project.
- She does her homework. Every single time we requested answers, details (more details!), and testing, we got them promptly despite Meghan’s punishing teaching schedule.
Meghan’s original concept was for a phone app that would allow multiple students to play Infectious Diseases Gin Rummy, in real time, against each other or, possibly, the computer. But, to me, that screamed expensive and time-consuming to both build and operate:
- We couldn’t build just ‘a phone app.’ Students would have both iPhones/iPads and Android phones/tablets. Some would want to play on the laptop computers required for their other coursework. That would mean three separate sets of code, even if the game was the same in each environment.
- Building a realistic, challenging computer opponent would be a fun task almost any developer would love to tackle but a huge one any customer should be reluctant to pay for.
- The multiplayer backend needed to communicate real-time moves between students would be complicated to construct and would require ongoing communications infrastructure (read $$$) to run.
On the other hand, constructing a modern ‘web app’ that would play equally well on desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones, would allow us to build once and students to play everywhere. And a solitaire version of the game would allow students the freedom to play whenever they wanted, without having to find partners or, necessarily, even have a network connection.
Also, after reading Meghan’s paper in the AJPE, it became clear that it would be important for the online environment to gather statistics about student’s playing times and outcomes. She will eventually want to write another paper, this time on the educational value of the solitaire variant. And, those same statistics could also be used to “appeal to the student’s competitive nature” with a leaderboard to show who had scored the most points and in the least amount of time.
The result of our joint efforts is a pair of games now called BugOut! Pharmacy and BugOut! Extreme Pharmacy. Both are a solitaire form of the original card game, differing only in the number of cards and obscurity of the bugs and drugs.