Link’s new abilities in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom let you construct all kinds of contraptions, from functional computers to uh, flamethrowing dicks. Thanks to these building powers, a college professor is using TotK’s mechanics and physics engine to teach students a bit about engineering and robotics.
Spotted on the Nintendo Switch subreddit, Ryan Sochol, the University of Maryland’s associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Bioinspired Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory (BAM), is using Nintendo’s popular open-world action-adventure game to advance students’ knowledge with machine construction and design. As Sochol outlined in a November 12 YouTube video, the class, “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to Machine Design” will leverage various aspects of the game, from its physics to its Rune abilities like Fuse and Ultrahand, to give mechanical engineering students a window into the world of robotics. It’s actually pretty sick.
“What surprised me, as I was playing through [Tears of the Kingdom], was the unexpected emphasis on machine design and engineering,” Sochol said in the video. “So, the game includes a number of different types of machine elements like rockets, motorized wheels, [and] propellers. And what’s interesting is that each of these different machine elements uses energy differently. “
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The way the course breaks down is cool. Students are paired in teams—three to four people per group—and given a Nintendo Switch with a physical copy of Tears of the Kingdom and a Pro Controller, which the students can take home during the semester.
Students first learn the basics of TotK’s machine elements to complete in-game problem-solving challenges (like finishing a shrine in an innovative and unexpected way). Then, the teams are tasked with investigating a specific machine element to discover how it performs under various kinds of circumstances. Finally, students take what they’ve learned to undergo a machine design challenge, with tests that see teams prototype and construct a transforming, bioinspired, amphibious robotic vehicle for an in-class race. The team with the fastest robot on land and sea wins an A+.
“We believe this semester’s pilot run of the course is just the beginning,” Sochol said at the end of his YouTube video. “We hope to leverage this special opportunity in which a video game is actually able to provide reasonably authentic and relevant learning experiences for students to inspire a lasting interest and confidence in machine design, engineering, and robotics.”
It seems Sochol has done just that. In a phone interview with Kotaku, he said that while building out the one-credit college course was a bit of a scramble—TotK launched in May and Sochol wanted the class going by June—he wound up with way more students signing up than he could reasonably teach. In fact, not only did he have to cut off registrations, he raffled spots off.
“I had to limit it in terms of how many Nintendo Switches could I buy and all that kind of stuff,” Sochol told me. “And also, like, could I find a classroom that has all these TVs and so forth. So, I had to set my class limit at about 20 or so [students]. And I had to actually make a lottery for students to be able to even apply for the class [because] over 100 people filled out that lottery and I had to stop accepting responses at some point. It was just getting ridiculous.”
Curious students were hit with a questionnaire that asked about their history with The Legend of Zelda and, more specifically, Tears of the Kingdom. Folks who were more familiar with both were more likely to get into the course, but when the dust settled—a random number generator was ultimately used to select students—Sochol said that half of the course had never played a Zelda game. Ever. Meanwhile, just one student had beaten TotK by the time the course started, and only four had even played it. Despite this unfamiliarity, Sochol said the least experienced team won the mid-term challenge race.
What’s also pretty cool is that Sochol paired the game with the industry-standard computer-aided design (CAD) software other engineers—himself included—use to construct robots and products. Students will, for example, build a car in ToTK and then attempt to replicate it in CAD, picking apart the differences side-by-side to see how the game’s virtual world relates to the real world. This way, students learn some complementary CAD skills for IRL application while testing out theories in a 3D space.
It’s also exponentially cheaper doing it like this, as CAD software—specifically the SolidWorks program Sochol and the University of Maryland engineering courses use—can run hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for a yearly subscription. That said, he said the class itself, while much more cost-effective than subscribing to CAD software, still drained his wallet. Sochol explained:
That’s the really funny thing. I think, if you’re outside of the academic world or the engineering world, you might look at it [as expensive]. But to give you, like, a frame of reference, the CAD software I’m talking about using? The license that we personally get for my lab for one computer for one year is $10,000. Even one of the main simulation softwares that my group uses, which I feel is not that expensive, is still $3,000 for one license for one year. And I have to keep subscribing to that every single year so that my students can still simulate floating interactions and things like that. […] With this course, I got six Nintendo Switches, I got six game cartridges, and I got six Pro Controllers. And with that, we’re under $3,000 and they never go away. I can use these forever. It’s a one-time purchase, and to be honest, all of that together is still less than the computer that I had to buy to even start this whole process to get a license.
The hope, Sochol said as the course enters its final weeks, is to expand the course’s curriculum—making it a more intensive three-credit class—and structure it so that other colleges can offer something similar. He outlined on his LinkedIn page how he constructed the class to inspire other professors to do the same. He also intends to run the course in the spring semester—and the one after that, and the one after that—for as long as there’s funding and students. It’s a one-credit elective course, which is comparable to sitting in a seminar for an attendance grade, but Sochol has aspirations to make it a much heavier-weight class in the long term. For now, Sochol’s very impressed with his students’ progress.
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Buy Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom: Amazon | Best Buy | GameStop
With the massive success that is Tears of the Kingdom, which has sold nearly 20 million units since its May 12 launch, Sochol hopes that other developers follow the path of what’s known as the gamification of learning, or “gamified education,” the act of using video games to teach students a variety of curricula. I’d love to see this, too. It shows that the medium is capable of more than we realize.
Oh, and in case you were curious: Sochol has completed ToTK (with his wife, no less) and his fave Zelda game is Ocarina of Time.