Games that challenge students in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM games, are finding a growing place in the curriculum and classrooms of educators across North America. Whether through the efforts of individual teachers or with the support of national education initiatives, creative games are showing kids of all ages that math and science can be exciting.
Such examples include two games developed by Salt Lake City educator Scott Laidlaw. Initially developing on his own, Laidlaw ended up giving up his teaching job to start Imagine Education, a game company dedicated to creating educational games that have given students a new outlook on applying their math knowledge.
Through his first game, entitled Empires, Laidlaw had his students build virtual ancient empires using math. Set in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, the game brings students together to build an economic community that builds on fundamental math skills and sets a foundation for financial literacy.
“By engaging them in a story, you’ve engaged the imagination,” explains Laidlaw. “If you can imagine math in one context, that gives you the power to imagine math in a different context.” Though the game was not for sale, educators who heard of its concept were eager to use it in their own classrooms. The game is set for commercial release in fall 2012.
The second game, Ko’s Journey, was released in the summer of 2010, building on the demand for and enthusiasm toward Empires. This story-based math game is designed for both home and classroom use, as a support curriculum to teach early middle-school math concepts such as multiplication and division to calculating area, understanding graphs to pre-algebra basics.
“It’s a game you actually have to use your mind for,” said Conner Cattoway, a 7th grade student from Ogden, UT. “It’s pretty fun to be able to do these things during math class instead of just getting a worksheet.”
The game tells the story of Ko, an teenage girl who finds herself alone after her village is attacked. Travelling through the wilderness, she faces challenges and tasks solved through middle-school math concepts, such as ratios, graphs and geometry. Ko’s Journey was created to provide a motivating and effective learning environment for 5th to 8th grade students.
“As a teacher I always wanted a curriculum like this,” adds Laidlaw. “It’s engaging because the kids see and become involved in a story.”
And data shows that students benefit from the format as well. Middle schoolers who played the game scored on average 50 percent higher on standardized tests. Educators who would like to introduce the game in their classroom can learn more here.
Also making the most of a compelling narrative is Geckoman!, a game developed by researchers at the Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN) at Northeastern University in Boston, MA.
Designed with the goal of teaching middle-school students about nanoscience and technology, the game tells the story of Harold Biggums. He finds himself transformed into a tiny superhero while working on a science fair project with his partner Nikki, and suddenly in the middle of an alien plot to take over the world. Together they must stop the aliens by defying gravity, walking on water and charging across electric fields.
“Geckoman! is both engaging and challenging, and along the way, students pick up a lot of nanoscience fundamentals,” said Ahmed Busnaina, director of the Center and professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern.
“We had excellent teachers working with us to develop four lesson plans that guide student learning,” added Jacqueline Isaacs, associate director of the CHN. “The results of student play tests indicate that students are learning new concepts.”
Video games that explore the Moon are aiming to give students the chance to conduct their own scientific experiments and encouraging them to pursue careers in the field of science. Created by the Center for Education Technologies at Wheeling Jesuit University, WV, MoonWorld makes players work independently or in groups to explore and conduct their own research as astronauts.
“The idea of this is not to have students learn so much about the moon, but to learn how to observe, to learn how to make deductions from their observations, to learn to work in teams. … [It] has strong educational goals and methodology to help the students achieve them,” said Chuck Wood, lunar scientist and director of the Center.
Funded by NASA, the game is based in Second Life and features virtual scenery that includes different types of craters as well as a lava flow and a volcanic dome. There, players get to explore the lunar surface, closely observing the terrain, collecting samples, and making measurements to piece together the history of one part of the Moon, known as the Timocharis region. MoonWorld has been available online for over a year, but a more recent version targets young children.
“The goal of this is to make it so realistic and the astronauts outfits and the rovers so realistic that the kids completely get engaged in it and then one of the benefits of this is because it is so realistic you can go outside with binoculars or a telescope in the evening and actually see that same crater on the moon that you were driving a rover around on the simulation,” said Wood.
The Center has developed other games including Selene, named after the Greek Goddess of the Moon. It uses familiar experiences, analogies and metaphors to help children ages 9 and up understand challenging science concepts.
“Selene starts out as a cinematic view of how the solar system formed and that is the concept of accretion and then how the early Earth formed and then how the giant impact happened that created the particles that created the proto moon,” said Debbie Denise Reese, senior researcher for the Center.
The decisions students make while playing MoonWorld and Selene are recorded and stored in a database, giving the researchers the ability to track learning patterns and develop profiles of what students know as well as what they are prepared to learn.
“I’m learning a lot about the space, and about the moon, and the density, and the heat and the radiation of the moon and it is fun to play and you do learn a lot about it so. You get to fling asteroids to make your own moon and that is pretty fun,” said Carla Nelson, a 7th grade student in Wheeling, who tested the game.