Gaming Reveals the Invisible World of Science to Students

Gaming Reveals the Invisible World of Science to Students

Kristie Wang's picture

The exploration robot in the Nintendo DS game Ruby Realm, developed by Possible Worlds to teach 7th graders photosynthesis.

This post is part of a week-long STEM Matters series. Thought-leaders, social innovators, and experts from around the country are sharing how and why science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are critical to our abilities to solve complex problems across a wide range of fields, from climate change, medicine, economic development, space exploration, to the movies!

As the Changemakers Blog discussed last week, there’s been a lot of buzz lately about the potential power of digital gaming to do more than just exercise thumbs. In a keynote speech at the Games for Change (G4C) annual conference held last month, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore spoke encouragingly about games’ potential to educate and develop critical thinking—and there were several presentations of games that support STEM education.

The potential for games to enhance STEM learning is backed up by a growing body of research, which is revealing how digital games can be particularly useful for tackling STEM learning and teaching challenges. One way to put this theory into practice is demonstrated by Possible Worlds, a research and development center funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The project is studying how games can be designed to target specific problems that middle grade students face when learning about science.

“Middle grade science teachers have the enormous challenge of inviting kids to understand the invisible nature of the scientific system – how photosynthesis, genetics, or global warming actually work,” said Dr. Katie McMillan Culp, co-principal investigator of Possible Worlds. “They have to start trying to think about the world in the abstract. That’s junior high. It’s very difficult.”

STEM courses are particularly difficult for the middle grades because they ask kids to grasp unfamiliar, abstract concepts. Possible Worlds is taking on this challenge by developing a series of games for the Nintendo DS designed to help students build experiential knowledge of theoretical concepts.

“If you’re in the second grade, you learn how the seasons change by watching the leaves change colors,” Culp said. “Or you might have tadpoles in the classroom that turn into frogs.

“You learn by looking at the world. It’s enormously important for kids to have the experience of direct observation and inquiry. But in the middle grades, we start telling students that there’s a whole lot going on in the world that we can’t show them directly.”

Digital games can help bridge the gap between abstract concepts and experiential knowledge. “Games can provide kids with visual analogies that teachers can then harvest in their teaching,” Culp said.

Building on an increasing number of studies exploring partnerships between technology and learning, Possible Worlds is pinpointing exactly what kinds of learning challenges exist for students of each age level and for each science subject. For example, Possible Worlds has found that many seventh graders who are learning about life science have difficulty letting go of particular misconceptions, despite what teachers and textbooks teach in the classroom.

“They will often say something like, ‘I have blond hair because my mom has blond hair,’ and ‘Girls get their hair color from their moms and boys from their dads’,” Culp said. “And there’s no reason for them not to believe these things, based on their empirical experiences.”

The same is true for adults as well as young teenagers — we all have trouble internalizing concepts that don’t seem to confirm our own experiences. Overcoming this dissonance for the first time is a major challenge for young science students. 

Possible Worlds avoids focusing on using games as drills to help students practice skills or memorize information. Instead, its games are designed to address conceptual challenges and to help students grasp a bigger picture of how the world works. For example, the game Ruby Realm looks and plays like an adventure/shooter game, but places students as the central actors of the steps involved in photosynthesis.

Video Walkthrough of Level 1 of Ruby Realm:


Level 9 of Ruby Realm:

Possible Worlds doesn’t view games as blanket solutions for teaching, Culp notes. “We don’t want to insist that, ‘This game will teach everybody physics!’ –because teaching a fourth grader physics and teaching a ninth grader physics are quite different things,” she said.

“They have different needs, and they’re struggling with different parts of the concept. And so a big part of our work is about really attending carefully to what developmental challenges are intersecting with the conceptual material that courses are trying to get kids to tackle.”

Neither does Possible Worlds see games or technology as ways to replace traditional classrooms. In the center’s work inside real classrooms, game play is assigned as homework to be completed before the subject is taught in class, giving students a common experience and an analogy that they can reference during instruction.

“The games are designed to be supplemental to classroom instruction,” said Culp. “Our goal is to really focus on finding out what teachers and students need that can make what’s already happening work better.

“We respect teachers, who are very much at the center of the learning process, as people who are managing kids’ very complicated interactions and who can make intelligent decisions about what resources are right for their kids.”

Although the development of digital games that address specific learning barriers is still a relatively new field, more organizations are recognizing games as useful tools to facilitate STEM education. Qykno, an early entry winner in the Changemakers Partnering for Excellence: Innovations in Science + Technology + Engineering + Math Education competition, uses gaming to motivate students to explore STEM careers and discover their interests in the subjects. To see more examples of innovators working to improve STEM education, visit the competition site here.

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Possible Worlds is a project of the National Research and Development Center on Instructional Technology, founded by the Center for Children and Technology (CCT) and part of Education Development Center, Inc. The five-year research effort, made possible by a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, seeks to develop a series of game-based activities that can aid science and literacy instruction. Possible Worlds is developing and testing game modules — built around the Nintendo DS — that infuse inquiry-based learning and literacy support into traditional classroom practice.

Want to continue the conversation? Join Ashoka Changemakers, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and The Opportunity Equation for a Twitter #SocEntChat on July 20th from 3-5pm EDT to discuss how innovation in STEM education can create a stronger future for our students and our communities. Remember, the deadline for our Partnering for Excellence: Innovations in Science + Technology + Engineering + Math Education competition is August 3rd!

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STEM courses are particularly difficult for the middle grades because they ask kids to grasp unfamiliar, abstract concepts. Possible Worlds is taking on this challenge by developing a series of games for the Nintendo DS designed to help students build experiential knowledge of theoretical concepts. college essay writers