Video-Game Professor Helps California Utility Deliver Message of Water Conservation

Video-Game Professor Helps California Utility Deliver Message of Water Conservation

A child tries out the Zero Waste Sorting game at a community event.

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A severe drought in 2015 led the California city of Davis to educate the public on how to help conserve water.

The city engaged an environmental consultant to help brainstorm ideas. The result is an interactive online video game designed to engage students and ultimately parents.

Davis — home to a University of California campus — has numerous walkways, parks and bike trails. It is known for its environmentally aware and socially innovative culture. The city (population 70,000) lies 11 miles west of Sacramento. Its wastewater treatment plant is permitted for 7.5 mgd.

Creating the games

Since the city has a storied history for its toads and its college roots, the consultant suggested a cartoon toad mascot, Professor Davis Green. Because of the drought, the focus for the first game was on water conservation. It’s designed to work with the Chromebook platform kids use in schools.

Students can choose from two games centered on water conservation. One is a picture-matching game set to lively music with tips on how to save water. For example, a player who matches two plant pictures gets a reminder to choose plants that require little water. Two faucets bring a reminder to install aerators.

The other game asks students to click around a map of the city; they get points for identifying water leaks. Both games are led by Professor Davis Green. When they finish the two games, students can download a certificate. The games are tailored to grades 2-5.

Help from collegians

Based on the success of those games, the city approached Sacramento State University to help create another. The university requires its senior computer science students to help a local business or nonprofit create a computer program. Businesses and organizations submit their requests, and the students pick the ones they find the most engaging to work on.

For Davis, the students created an interactive recycling game called “Professor Davis Green Goes Zero Waste.” Using matching pictures, it shows players which products can be recycled and composted. A second game, “Zero Waste Sorting,” asks players to match the product with the correct bin for plastics, glass and metals; organics; paper; or landfill items. 

“This game proved to be another hit with the kids,” says Jennifer Gilbert, conservation coordinator. “So the following year, we submitted a request for a third game.” This time the college students created a game focused on preventing stormwater pollution.

The game first teaches player what should not go down a storm drain and how pollutants that get in storm drains affect the watersheds and wildlife. Because the stormwater game is a little more challenging, it is for grades 3-12.

City staff members created all the graphics, and the computer science students wrote the code. The city hosts the games on its website and updates them when needed.

Promoting the games

The city promotes the games through social media, at local events and in an electronic newsletter sent to 17,000 subscribers,

“Before COVID, we were visiting classrooms and showcasing the games, along with environmental assemblies for kids,” Gilbert says. “In addition, we took iPads to Earth Day events and other places where we had booths and encouraged the attendees to play them. We were surprised how popular they were with adults.”

The residents attending said the games weren’t as easy as they thought, and reported that they learned a lot from them. The city gives out flyers in classrooms and events that children and adults can take home, as reminders of water-saving practices.

Good feedback

The games have been well received by the teachers and students. Dawn Calciano, conservation coordinator for the city, observes, “We handed out surveys at some classroom visits. The educators’ feedback was positive, and they mentioned how much their students enjoyed the games.”

Gilbert adds, “In some classes, teachers compete with the students, and the students usually win. The children are well trained from their time in the cafeteria about what bin their trash should go in, so they have an edge that way. Besides, they grew up on video games.”

Calciano concludes, “The games engage the students and the public, causing them to ask more questions about what they can do to help. And that’s just what we want to hear.”  


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