IST students view their mobile game prototype on a computer

Penn State Schuylkill students use technology to combat elder abuse

IST capstone project with impact
By: Susan C. Andrews

Three Penn State Schuylkill students pooled their talents, expertise and enthusiasm for mobile game design into a capstone project with impact. They received the Hornbrook Memorial Award for Group Contribution to Elder Empowerment from Eileen Barlow, the chairperson of the Schuylkill Elder Abuse Prevention Alliance (SEAPA), at its annual event that took place on May 12 in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. The award is named after John Hornbrook, a former professor of biology at the Schuylkill campus. Barlow, along with SEAPA treasurer Karen Kenderdine, initially met with the students to define the project goals.

Although the recognition meant a great deal to the students, their experience in making a difference to a vulnerable population—the elderly—took them to a new level of appreciation for the skills they are learning as information sciences and technology (IST) majors.

Brady Seigfried, Jared Kemmerling and Ron Piaskowski created an interactive mobile game prototype to identify, prevent and help report all types of elder abuse—emotional, financial exploitation, neglect, physical, self-neglect and sexual —from the ideation stage through to strong proof of concept. The team, all gaming minors, said they wanted to develop an interactive mobile game to bring awareness of this growing societal issue to a younger audience.

Barlow said, “People are afraid that if they report abuse at a nursing home or somewhere else they will be kicked to the curb.” She added, “We owe it to elderly—often seen as a disposable group—to protect them and get the message about elder abuse out to a broader community.” She said that they learned about the work of the Schuylkill campus IST students through Dr. Elinor Madigan, assistant professor of information sciences and technology, who had served as a guest presenter at a summer SEAPA Board retreat.

Madigan, a believer that an individual’s job should help humanity whenver possible, said, “Students in our IST program are always doing projects for the community. I believe strongly that is how they are going to learn how their skills are transferable to a small business or nonprofit.”

To this end, Seigfried said, “We met with representatives from SEAPA to determine the scope of the project and how we could best meet the needs of the association on this topic.” He emphasized that the students decided they could develop the mechanics of a game to bring greater awareness of this problem to society, especially the younger generation who would rather learn through a mobile game than read about the topic. In doing so, they explored software programs to determine which might render the game most effectively and efficiently.

How the game works: The window simulates an investigation. The mobile game user is presented with various scenarios to determine if a case of elder abuse is true or false, including statements from alleged victims, friends, family, facility workers and others. They view photos, learn medical histories and look for incongruities among statements given. During the game, the player locates evidence by clicking on “hotspots.” After enough evidence is collected (60%), the game player can determine if the case of elder abuse is true or false. Knowledge of elder abuse is acquired during the course of the game. The game developers were inspired by similar games, such as Papers Please about border patrol and their discrete math class where they worked on logic puzzles.

In developing the game beyond coding and programming, the students selected and edited photos and created icons, tabs and backgrounds to establish the game’s scenery. Seigfried used another one of his talents, music composition, to provide ambience while playing the game.

“Our Schuylkill campus students understand that their skills are transferable to a variety of arenas, and, hopefully, it will stay with them to be community-oriented,” Madigan said. “Everybody needs IT at some level or another, and giving back to the community does make you feel good.”

Kemmerling, the primary coder and developer, will graduate in December, but Seigfried and Piakowski are sophomores and, along with incoming Schuylkill campus students, will continue to strengthen the foundation they built. Piakowski said they hoped to convert the game to the web so that it could be accessed from SEAPA’s website. They also aim to include an online manual and tabs for higher level investigations.

Barlow sees success in the offing for the trio: “We are very proud of the Schuylkill campus students and can’t wait to see what the future holds for every one of them.”