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Student Spotlights: Jennifer Han and Chris Barker

Student Spotlight

Handdrawn images from Martian Music Invasion

Because of its interdisciplinary nature, the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) often brings together students from departments across campus. The partnership of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) undergraduate students Jennifer Han and Chris Barker is a testament to that. The two students partnered together to complete a yearlong independent study with HCII Assistant Professor Amy Ogan.

Their objective was to use HCI and game design principles to teach children how to read music. The end result was a user study ran in a local classroom with their game, "Martian Music Invasion," which uses aliens, super heroes and other playful elements to inspire curiosity and ultimately increase a child's ability to read music. To culminate the project, they tested the game with 114 students at a local elementary school and are writing a paper about their findings.

Tell us about yourself

Han: I'm Jen Han, and I'm an Information Systems major with a minor in Human-Computer Interaction. I'm a junior.

Barker: I'm Chris Barker, and I am a senior Electrical & Computer Engineering major and a Computer Science minor. I've taken two classes and this Independent Study in HCI though, and am interested in the field.

How did you get involved with game design research in the HCII?

Han: We were both really interested in building educational games and so we started a small group of 4 people about a year ago. We were trying to work on it outside of school. We met up on Sunday nights for a few hours to create a game with the Carnegie Mellon University Educational Technology club. We didn't have as much time to devote to it as we wanted to and there was so much we needed to do.

It was at on one of the Educational Technology meetings when Amy Ogan came and mentioned that we could do an independent study and get credit for it. We both said, 'whoa'. We could work on this so much more and have a faculty advisor help us through the process and ground it in more education and HCI principles, rather than what we come up with.

Barker: Amy was really interested in the game we were working on at the time. We came to her after she mentioned we could do an independent study.

She guided us. Our research is around motivation and educational games. When we were talking to her about our original game, we had this conversation that our motivation was very extrinsic, meaning the game play and the educational aspect are very separated from each other. So she told us about some research to integrate those together more and that became the general premise for our research.

Why did you focus your research around curiosity?

Han: We narrowed it down initially that we wanted to teach younger kids.

Barker: Amy introduced us to this idea of motivation in educational games, and we came up independently with the idea of curiosity as a motivator. We knew we wanted to do curiosity before we knew we wanted to teach about music.

Han: Yes, and the reason we decided to do curiosity is the literature we found. There are four main factors that increase motivation for kids playing educational games: game play, fantasy context, goals and curiosity. We saw that curiosity did not have as much research. It was uncharted territory, so we decided to do this one.

How did you decide on music?

Barker: I dabbled in piano, viola and trombone growing up. My mom went back to college and got a music theory degree when I was in junior high, and she spoke to me a lot about it. Music has always been something worth studying to me.

A big roadblock for people in their music studies is that they will be able to play songs on their instruments after practicing, but they aren't able to sight-read music.

Han: I also grew up around music. I started playing piano when I was 5 years old, and I had the same teacher for 13 years. She was a huge influence in my life. She talked a lot about a decreasing affinity that people have for classical music, and a lot of it is because it's not taught in schools anymore. A lot of schools cut music programs because math and science and reading are becoming a bigger priority. Now a lot of kids don't like music because they see it as something they are forced to do, and it isn't fun.

What are your biggest takeaways from your research experience?

Han: We put in so much thought about the design process and the game and fantasy process to make it fun. But, we still didn't know how the kids would respond. We didn't know if they would like it or hate it, or if they would get stuck and not find the game intuitive. Seeing that the kids really liked it, but also found it really challenging was interesting. It was really satisfying and really rewarding for us after putting so much thought into the game design process.

Barker: The game design process was more than I expected. While I was in high school, I made video games, but I designed them based on what I found fun. It was very different to design for kids who are 7-8 years old, for whom we had no guarantees about how well they could read, their exposure to music and even what they found to be fun (which is often different than what adults think). I don't think we would have been able to any of the game design for education and for kids without Amy's help.

Has this impacted what you want to do next?

Han: It's made me think more about what is rewarding and meaningful in a career. It's made me experience what its really like to be invested and care about a larger scale purpose of something, in a way I haven’t experienced in any other classes. So it's changed how I see my career and work. It's not just tasks or objectives that you need to reach, but that doing that work could affect people. I don't know in what capacity that will look like, but I know what that's supposed to feel like now. 

Barker: It's dislodged my idea of what I want my career to look like. I’m an engineer; I love problem solving. I love building projects. And I got to do some of that with this project as well. But that wasn't the most rewarding part of it. The most rewarding part was seeing the kids have those 'a-ha' moments when we were testing the game at the school.

What was the biggest surprise about research?

Han: The design phase surprised me in how much I enjoyed it. I also didn't expect it to take as long as it did or need as many iterations as it did. It was exciting to see where we started with the idea and how passionate we were about it, but be able to distance ourselves and be able to iterate it through and see how much better the final product was.

Barker: I really enjoyed the research aspect of the project, and it was a surprise. I knew that it was intellectually interesting, but it really felt meaningful.

What was your favorite memory?

Han: The one that comes to mind for me was this one day when Chris and I were sitting here and trying to figure out how to measure curiosity. We got into this two-hour discussion about what curiosity really is. Those were some of my favorite days – we'd try to wrap our heads around this big topic. I really liked that challenge.

Barker: I've got two. In Martian Music Invasion, you unlock a measure of a song for every level you complete. During one of the playtest we did at the end of the fall semester, we were trying to gauge how interested the kids were in playing Martian Music Invasion. To test this, we told them they could stop playing our game and pick a different game to play. One of our testers responded emphatically, “but I want to hear the end of the song!”

The second was when we were playtesting our game at the school a few weeks ago. I was looking around the classroom and this game we had built was on the screens for each student, and they were all expressing their excitement out loud and were really engaged with it. That was a surreal moment.

Han: The other moment I really liked was crunching the numbers and seeing that the kids had done better on the post-test than the pre-test. It's one thing for the kids to really find it fun, but to see that they had learning something from just a half hour of playing the game was really rewarding.

Where do you see the project and your research going next?

Han: We are hoping to write a paper on our findings and submit it to the ACM CHI conference.  

Barker: And hopefully we will have some significant results on curiosity and motivation and some application of those results for further game designers. We are also hoping to publish our game online so that people can continue to play it.

You can learn more about independent study opportunities at the HCII by visiting our undergraduate section. If you are a current student or alumni who would be interested in participating in a spotlight article, email us at