Kyle Burke: Teaching Problem-Solving through Games

When Kyle Burke isn’t teaching a class on computer programming or reading through student code, he’s likely playing games. He might be teaching his two daughters how to play Skip-Bo or Kings in the Corner or leading the weekly game lunch in his department, angling for the edge in One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Tsuro, or Blokus. 

Burke enjoys games because they’re fun and relaxing—and because gameplay gives the associate professor of computer science a unique way to study and teach problem-solving as it relates to programming and writing computer code. He’s especially fascinated by and posts a blog on his research on combinatorial game theory, the study of strategy and mathematical techniques used in games like chess and checkers, in which both players have the same information available to them before making a move. 

“There are a lot of simple board games out there, and when you’re playing them, you’re wondering, ‘How well could a computer play this game? Could I create a computer player that would be awesome at it?’” Burke says. “If you can find an algorithm to play these games perfectly, we already know how to transform that code to provide breakthroughs in technology, finance, and medicine.” 

Gaming has been a life strategy for Burke since he was preparing his thesis at Boston University, where he earned his doctoral degree in computer science. He created a game he calls Atropos, inspired by the game Hex and mathematical principles related to geometrics. Burke now keeps a table of the various combinatorial games, their properties, and computational complexities. 

Burke had socialization and relaxation in mind for his students when he relaunched the game lunch program this semester. “I wanted them to have a way to keep their minds engaged over lunch, and I wanted students to get to know the faculty and feel comfortable with us,” he adds.  

In the classroom, Burke teaches programming and software engineering. Games invariably come into play as a motivator, and in Burke’s eight years at PSU, students have often created computer games as senior programming projects. They learn key skills, such as how to create computer graphics, employ fundamental algorithms, and develop artificial intelligence.  

Burke shows his dedication to students in part through his grading practices. He’s created a “pre-grader” through which students in one course pre-submit coding projects online. The pre-grader flags code that doesn’t operate properly so students can troubleshoot and fix it. In another course, students can continually resubmit their code until it’s correct.  

Burke’s passion and curiosity recently focused on a project with former student Matt Ferland ’18, who collaborated with Burke’s PhD advisor from BU, Shang-Hua Teng, who is now Ferland’s advisor. The three wrote a paper that was accepted for the 2022 Foundations of Computer Science conference.  

During his sabbatical last spring, Burke co-wrote Playing with Discrete Math, an introductory textbook on combinatorial game theory that is available for download.  

A lover of games, Burke has fashioned a career that itself is a big win. “I love teaching,” he says. “And I get to do research in something that I love.” 

Burke’s teaching style aligns with PSU’s Integrated Clusters Learning Model, in which students work in interdisciplinary teams on real problems, developing and practicing communication, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-regulated learning skills. New Cluster Learning bachelor’s degree programs slated for the fall semester include game design, forensic science, and sustainability studies. 

New Game Design Major