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Life-size ‘Operation’ game provides real-word learning experience

Closeup of a life-sized version of the game Operation.
A life-sized version of the game Operation created by WSU engineering students.

While it may look like fun and games, a project to build a life-sized version of the game Operation was not exactly easy to make and taught a group of engineering students valuable skills that they can carry into the workplace.

The students in Washington State University’s chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers built the game for Pullman Regional Hospital’s Center for Learning and Innovation and the Palouse Discovery Science Center (PDSC). The game will be showcased at the upcoming Family Science Night at PDSC at 6 p.m. on Jan. 19. At the free event, families are invited to explore the science center and partake in exhibits and health-related crafts. 

“This was a really fun project and really rewarding,” said Joel Villanueva, a senior in mechanical engineering and a team leader on the project. “I was able to get those leadership skills that you don’t get in a classroom. I’m really happy to have had a team that was persistent and willing to work.”

Staff at the Center for Learning and Innovation approached WSU faculty member Roland Chen to see if his students could design a life-sized game board. As part of the game, players use tongs to try to do “surgery” on a patient, removing bones or organs, such as the heart or liver. When a player makes an error in the surgery and hits the sides of the patient with the tongs, a buzzer sounds. The life-sized version of the game the students created will give children hands-on fun and a chance to peek into a human body.  

WSU students went through several iterations and prototypes with stakeholders before completing the game’s construction. 

Chen’s senior-level students first created an initial design for the project. The student engineering club later took over. They revisited the initial design and went through several iterations and prototypes with stakeholders before completing the game’s construction. 

The work was tricky at times, as the students had to translate the computer-aided design to a real table, perfectly lining up four different layered sheets to make the game work correctly. They used cardboard prototypes to determine the size of cavities so that the game is challenging for young players yet not too difficult. They also had to make sure the table would work for a child’s reach and be safe to play without sharp edges. 

Closeup of a 3-D printed brain.
A 3-D printed brain students created for the project.

“For students, there’s a big gap between coming up with a SolidWorks computer model that they were very comfortable with and then moving from the model to the actual building,” said Chen. “When they go through this process, they can much better visualize how they can translate a computer model into the physical prototype.”

The project also allowed students to learn project management and documentation skills that they will carry forward into their careers, Chen said. Villanueva managed the building of the electrical system while another student team built the table and cut out spaces for the organs and bones. A third team, led by senior Ryan Cole, worked on the 3D printing of body parts. They printed out bones and molds to cast a realistic-looking heart, liver, brain, and kidney from silicone to mimic the texture and color of those organs.

As members of the club, first year students Silas Peters and Connor Chase got a taste of working on a real-world engineering project. They didn’t have the experience that other students had in working with electrical components or soldering, for instance, so they did some woodworking, learned about the tools and equipment, and helped out where they could. They also learned valuable skills in time management.

“It presented a great opportunity to get some real-world experience,” said Chase. “They showed us the whole process from designing to modeling to constructing. It was a really cool experience.”

“They were super welcoming,” added Peters. “Everyone understood that we were freshmen and still figuring things out. They just helped us.”

After the event, the game will stay at the science center and will be used for occasional traveling exhibitions. The community science center, which was established in 1999, provides interactive exploration for children in science, technology and the arts. 

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