Sharon Goza: Computer Graphics and Gamification

Sharon Goza is a Rice MCS alumna and now the manager of NASA's Integrated Graphics, Operations, and Analysis Lab.

Sharon Goza is a Rice MCS alumna and the manager of NASA's Integrated Graphics, Operations, and Analysis Lab.

Rice University alumna Sharon Goza (MCS ’89) recalls showing up for her first co-op assignment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and being placed in an office to update databases.

“A Computer Science degree doesn’t mean all I can do is data entry,” said Goza, who was then halfway through the Computer Science program at Purdue University. Returning to Indiana wasn’t an option, but in her mind neither was months of data entry. Instead, she sought out the Co-operative Education Program director who took her on a tour of the facility to consider other Co-op projects.

She said, “We walked by a machine with a computer generated, wireframe space station spinning on it, and I said, ‘I want to do that!’ but it wasn’t on my director’s list for Co-op projects. He talked to the team about their work, they took me on, and it eventually became this lab.”

It is now called the Integrated Graphics Operations and Analysis Lab (IGOAL), and Goza--a 35-year NASA employee--­­­is its manager.

“Originally, it was just a kind of test lab,” she said. “3D Graphics at NASA in the early 1980s were mostly line drawings. At the beginning of my first Co-op tour, we received one of the first solid surface machines called a GTI Poly 2000. My boss charged me with learning how to use it and programming something that could be demoed to management during my four month assignment.”

In 1984, there was no public Internet, no YouTube videos. The typical methods for acquiring knowledge outside the classroom were reading books and trial-and-error. Goza, whose Purdue classes were focused on systems programming, had two years of Pascal training.

She grins now at the memory. “I had four months to learn C and computer graphics in order to model a Mars sample-return mission. I learned computer graphics through books. The best one, by Foley and Van Dam, is still on my shelf today.

“In my second co-op assignment, they gave me another new machine with lots of power but only a bare bones SDK. My boss had written a program on an old HP that did modeling in wireframe. My assignment was to make that work in 3D. So I spent that summer drawing and coloring polygons, figuring out which color went on which vertices, and figuring out how a graphical user interface should work.”

Goza continued to acquire and apply knowledge and skills at a rapid pace, pushing boundaries for her lab’s systems and potential applications. When she was offered a fellowship to earn a graduate degree, she chose the non-thesis Master’s of Computer Science program at Rice and completed her degree in two semesters.

In her free time, Goza was an avid computer gamer. She said, “I’ve been a gamer since I was little. All through my life, my family has played board games and card games. Mom bought an Atari my senior year in high school, but my quarters still went to the arcades. In college, I played NetHack. It was all ASCII – your character was represented by “@” and you moved around a dungeon built with pound signs.

“When the Internet came around, groups of people started up games called multi-user dungeons (MUDs). Still all text based, but you progressed from room to room and interacted with other players. Several people at the department of computer science at the University of Copenhagen wrote base code for a MUD called DikuMUD. They put the code out for people to download and modify, which I did.”

Goza started out playing MUDs, but quickly ended up programming them. “As soon as people found out I was a programmer, I started getting asked to help out.” She worked on several MUDs, writing modifications and fixing bugs, until she decided to start her own with a fellow coder.

With decades of parallel experience in both computer graphics for NASA and online gamer and game programming, Goza was well prepared to merge the two disciplines. Beginning in 2016, she helped introduce gamification to several of NASA’s various training environments.

“Computer graphics and the process of gamification are completely different,” said Goza. “To work as an educational tool, the computer game has to make sense, inform, and be engaging beyond the actual graphics on the screen.

“When NASA invited employee proposals for Innovation funding, I submitted one to try gamification in training. They awarded us a little money and we showed success within three months.” Over the last several years, Goza’s IGOAL lab has published several learning game applications that the public can access, including NASA Science Investigations: Plant Growth and NASA Science: Humans in Space.

Because of their success on the innovation project, Goza’s IGOAL lab was asked to gamify personnel training. In response, her team developed a gamified anti-harassment training application for use across NASA. The application won an exceptional software award and is now a finalist in the Gamicon Throwdown, sponsored by Training Magazine.

“I’m now working on my Master’s Certification in Gamification,” said Goza. “Like teachers, corporate trainers have realized the benefits of adding game elements to learning things their people consider boring. Kids and employees relate to games. Give them a story; they’ll be more engaged than if you give them a list of things to memorize.”

Goza’s games work because she includes tools and incentives like narratives, progress bars, and badges. Each solution is unique because no tools or incentives have been found to work in every learning or training situation. This means Goza spends a lot of time researching her audience.

“Identify your learners’ motivation. Develop personas, and match game mechanics to the motivations for those personas. In one of our projects, the typical persona was Type A, very driven, and liked competition – so we incorporated activities for those personality traits in the training. The anti-harassment modules were particularly challenging because there are so many personas across the company. There was no way to please every single person with our solution.”

She’s still playing computer games in her free time and reflects that her competitive spirit has helped buoy her career. Her advice to CS students and alumni is to recognize their own worth and to keep pushing.

“Never take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Goza. “If I had stayed in that first NASA co-op, updating databases, I would have never gotten where I am today.”

Goza had cause for concern. She said being female in the CS field 40 years ago was a rough experience. “We were not perceived as individuals who could actually accomplish work on a serious basis --one of the reasons I was first assigned to updating databases.

“Be prepared to fight for what you want. If you don’t have the skills, you can learn the skills. Everyone who’s been to college has proven they can learn. If there is a conference that will help you learn, identify it to your boss and say, ‘Send me.’ If you don’t learn to speak up for yourself, you’ll be stuck where you are.”