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“The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom” isn’t just the fastest-selling Nintendo game of all time. As the basis for a brand-new engineering course at the University of Maryland (UMD), the video game may now be at the forefront of a new movement in higher education.

When UMD Associate Professor Ryan D. Sochol realized how important machine design is to the gameplay of Nintendo’s recent release, he devised a course that incorporates the game in place of traditional computer-aided design (CAD) and engineering software. 

 “As I played through “Tears of the Kingdom,” I couldn’t believe how much I was relying on my engineering training,” said Sochol. “The more experience I had with the game’s CAD assembly interface, numerous machine elements, and sophisticated physics, the more I felt it offered unique means to help students hone their skills in machine design.”

Just a few months after the game’s release, Sochol’s “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to Machine Design” course launched in Fall 2023 to provide undergraduate students with an uncommon opportunity to gain experience designing, prototyping, and testing new types of vehicles, robots, and machines–all within the virtual world of the game.

Samuel Graham, Jr., dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering at UMD, said the course exemplifies a new movement in higher education, geared towards greater incorporation of immersive media–including virtual, augmented, and mixed reality–in the classroom.

“The Clark School prides itself on providing our students a rich mix of classroom and hands-on experiences, preparing them to tackle big challenges and position themselves for success in the workforce,” Graham said. “Gaming is a doorway for young people to become interested in engineering and computer science, and create simulation tools that help us solve real world challenges. Our Legend of Zelda class plays on that appeal and provides a powerful mix of intellectual and practical tools.”

In one of the course’s projects during Fall 2023, students created a transforming robot that can run on land and swim in water and then raced their robots in the game to see whose was fastest. The project, along with others based on aerial vehicles, are designed to help students build their proficiencies in machine design and engineering–but it won’t necessarily make them better at Zelda, Sochol cautions.

“The machines created for the design projects aren’t too useful if you’re looking to beat the game, but it enables us to teach engineering in the way it ideally should be taught–as something that is engaging, challenging, exciting, and fun,” he said.

This is not the first foray into gamified engineering for Sochol, who joined the UMD mechanical engineering faculty in 2015.  He and researchers in his Bioinspired Advanced Manufacturing (BAM) Laboratory made headlines when they demonstrated a 3D-printed soft robotic hand by playing Super Mario Bros.—work that led to a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to build soft robots for neurosurgery.

Following its release in May 2023, “Tears of the Kingdom” not only became one of the best-selling and best-reviewed games for the Nintendo Switch, but has also fostered interest in machine design and engineering among the general public. For example, an online forum for posting machines and vehicles built in the game, “Hyrule Engineering” on Reddit, has amassed more than 150,000 subscribers.

With a waitlist more than double the class limit for this semester’s initial offering, the course has similarly garnered significant interest from UMD students. Sochol plans to offer the Zelda course every semester for the foreseeable future. 

 
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November 15, 2023


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“As I played through “Tears of the Kingdom,” I couldn’t believe how much I was relying on my engineering training. The more experience I had with the game’s CAD assembly interface, numerous machine elements, and sophisticated physics, the more I felt it offered unique means to help students hone their skills in machine design.”

Ryan Sochol, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Maryland

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