New first-year student game drives social engagement

Emma Stuck
October 30, 2014
students have lunch with Barb Eshbach

First-year students Emily Bodnar (left) and Megan Xu (right) enjoy the “Lunch with a Librarian” opportunity last Thursday, Oct. 23, with Barb Eshbach (center). This earns them each 25 points in the ConnectED game.

IMAGE: Penn State

First-year students at Penn State York have been having fun playing a new game called ConnectED, which was created to enhance the first-year student experience and increase social engagement. But this is not just any game – ConnectED, a game-based library First-Year Experience, also known as FYE, offers a grand prize next spring semester of $2,014 to be used toward tuition for returning to Penn State York.

According to Barb Eshbach, head librarian at Penn State York’s Lee R. Glatfelter Library, students earn points by participating in one of two ways – by attending library-sponsored ConnectED events and by making connections with other students, faculty, and staff on campus. The FYE uses a game board, which tracks points, and “connection cards.” In order to make a “connection,” each student needs to find something they have in common with another person, and ConnectED events offer a wonderful opportunity for students to make these connections, Eshbach said. The student then writes what they have in common on the back of their card. These cards allow students to record their name and Penn State user ID and the name and user ID of their connection.

"Just the framework of this program gives you an easy way to create opportunities to meet students,” Eshbach said. “And the reason that I particularly like playing games is because I find it hard to be in a social situation with people that I don't know and have a conversation. I would imagine a lot of students would feel that way, too, coming in and having to interact with people they don't know."

Through the game board, students track their progress with stickers. Eshbach said she tracks their progress on a huge spreadsheet, where she records their points. Students can receive 25 points for events with local speakers and 50 points for events that bring in outside speakers. At the end of the academic year, Eshbach said she will total the points and the students with the most points will earn the $2,014, an award amount that denotes the year the student started at Penn State.

ConnectED gameboard

This is the ConnectED gameboard Barb Eshbach created for her students to use to keep track of their points.

IMAGE: Penn State

The idea for ConnectED, Eshbach’s first research project, had been in the works for a couple of years, but she wasn’t sure the direction she wanted to take with it. Eshbach said she was motivated to start the project when she attended the 2012 TLT Symposium, where keynote speaker Jane McGonigal, director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, gave a presentation about games. Eshbach said she believes that students need to be provided with more gaming opportunities, to build engagement and interaction on campus.

"I think there's so much value to having this environment where students aren't afraid to fail, and they have this sense of wanting to continue trying something. There's this kind of motivation games provide that doesn't seem to be apparent in a lot of educational settings."

-Barb Eshbach

Another helpful resource for the creation of ConnectED was Suzanne Shaffer, instructional designer at Penn State York, who gave some foundational advice to get ConnectED off the ground. Eshbach said she is lucky to have such a dedicated instructional designer on the Penn State York campus and could not have created the project without her help.

So far, the game has gained a core group of five to seven students who have attended multiple ConnectED events, while some events, which are open to the entire campus community, have had 25 to 30 attendees. Eshbach said that she, along with Stephanie Diaz, Penn State York Library’s reference and instruction librarian, have put together each event, and Diaz has had a lot of good ideas for the events. Each event is tailored around one of five literacies – basic, information, civic and social, health, and financial.

In regard to increasing social engagement, Eshbach has seen a difference in her interactions with first-year students. “Research shows that a sense of belonging increases student success, retention, and persistence,” Eshbach said. “So, how do you get that sense of belonging on a commuter campus, where you may just come to class and then go home? You get it by making connections with people, and research has shown that social engagement is as important as academic engagement for student success.”


One student who has really appreciated the ConnectED events is first-year student Zheng Li. One event Li particularly liked was the “Marathon Reading of Harry Potter,” a basic literacy event where students took turns reading an entire Harry Potter book in about 15-minute increments. Li said he was initially very nervous to read aloud in English, his secondary language, to a lot of other people. However, everyone at the event was very friendly and remained quiet while they listened to Li’s reading, which Li said made him feel good.

“It helps a lot [to] increase the feeling of belonging, and it is a simple but effective way to meet new people, which is rather important for freshmen, especially for international students,” Li said.

Another first-year international student, Jinzi Sheng, said one thing he loves about ConnectED are the topics at each event. He said he finds the topics very interesting and enjoys the variety from each of the five literacies.  

“At the end of every event, we would have a 10-minute discussion on the topic we’ve just learned,” Sheng said. “I think this is the best way to let people get involved both with the ConnectED program and with the school in general.”

First-year student Tessa Miller also has appreciated the variety of topics, which she said range from fun to informational. “A lot of discussions are started during the ConnectED events and they turn into a way for students, faculty and staff to communicate with each other, while building a relationship,” Miller said.

Francyou Desse, another first-year student, has enjoyed the experience of making connections with other first-year students. “To be honest, the game has been fun.  I've never missed any of the events, and also I got to learn new things,” Desse said.

First-year students are not the only ones who have been enjoying the program. Senior Cody Grimm said he likes that it allows the campus community to come together and talk about subjects that can sometimes be considered taboo, like depression and Robin Williams’ suicide, a topic that was discussed during “Flash Forum: Exploring the Mystery of Suicide,” which was a health literacy event.

“I quite enjoyed the Harry Potter reading because I am a really huge Harry Potter fan,” Grimm said. “I dressed up in my Potter garb just for that reading! It's really a way to bring the campus together, and as a senior now, I wish it was offered when I was a freshman.”

In the future, Eshbach said she would love to offer an additional award of $1,855 for the 2015-16 academic year, in honor of the year Penn State was founded. This award would be given to any student at Penn State York who randomly connected with the $2,015 winner, a first-year student who started at Penn State in the 2015 fall semester. There would be a GPA requirement for the winners, something Eshbach has not determined yet. The first-year winner would have to be planning to come back to Penn State York the following year and the random winner could use the award to attend any Penn State campus.

Another new feature to the game would be digital badging to keep track of students’ progress through ConnectED. There would be badges for each of the five literacies and students would be able to see their progress online toward earning a literacy badge. Through each digital badge, a specific amount of points would be earned.

Eshbach said she wants to start exploring digital badging when the pilot year of ConnectED ends, and would love to use digital badging for the 2015-2016 academic year. She is also looking into crowdfunding to fund the awards in the future. One program she is currently looking into is USEED@PennState, which is a new online fundraising platform designed to support various projects affiliated with Penn State.

“The great thing about Penn State is when new things come up, for example badging - I don't have to go reinvent the wheel or invent the wheel - Penn State TLT has the badging platform, they're working on that,” Eshbach said. “That's the great part about working for a huge university because you've got some support that you wouldn't if you were at a really small institution trying to create everything yourself.”

For Eshbach, the most enriching part of the ConnectED program has been getting to meet students in a venue outside of traditional academic events. “Getting to really meet our students through interesting conversations on diverse topics has been a wonderful and surprising aspect of the project,” Eshbach said. “So far, my dream of giving students a way to connect with each other and the campus has been more than I could have asked for. I hope to continue the program in some form for many years to come!”

Last Updated October 30, 2014