Plugging in to science

Can video games help a wired generation connect to science?

By | December 15, 2006

In a prototype Web-based game for high school students called CO2FX , three players balance the agendas of a politician, a scientist, and an economist while trying to keep the globe cool. The game, under development with funding from the National Science Foundation, is designed to help students explore how policy decisions affect global warming, and it challenges them to make tough choices and then carefully evaluate the results. "Did your fossil fuel use drop? You may get a complimentary email from the country's president. Did your carbon tax cause a sharp increase in unemployment? You may see a video clip from the 'Action Newsroom' showing popular discontent with your actions," the game's Web site cautions. It's a far cry from Grand Theft Auto, but many experts believe the lure of electronic gaming -- even when that gaming involves "a dynamic model of global climate change that captures current thinking on the carbon cycle and fossil fuels" -- could be enough to help young people connect to science. In fact, there is a growing academic community supporting the educational video game movement. The University of Wisconsin, Indiana University-Bloomington, Columbia University's Teachers College, and MIT all have programs or courses in educational gaming; a partnership between MIT and the University of Wisconsin has resulted in The Education Arcade, a group devoted to "creating the next generation of educational games"; and The MacArthur Foundation recently invested 50 million dollars over five years to help develop digital educational tools. A recent report from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) entitled "Harnessing the Power of Video Games for Learning" calls for collaboration between government, business, and academia to develop more and better educational video games. The report stresses that games "can teach higher-order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretive analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change," all of which are skills that the U.S. will need in the future to compete with "lower cost knowledge workers" abroad. The FAS itself has created a game called Immune Attack, developed in partnership with Brown University and the University of Southern California. James Paul Gee is a professor in the Games, Learning, and Society minor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, and author of the book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Gee says video games are powerful learning tools because they teach students to solve problems in a defined world that has "situated meaning." Charles Kinzer, director of Columbia Teachers College's program in Communication, Computing, and Technology in Education, echoes that sentiment, saying that games are good at "embedding students within the problem instead of just presenting them with a problem." There is also a growing belief that the students of today are unlike any students that have come before them, and must be approached in new ways. "Students are frustrated and increasingly dissatisfied by the digital disconnect they experience at school," says the FAS report. "They cannot conceive of doing schoolwork without Internet access and they are not given many opportunities in school to take advantage of the Internet." Many experts believe it is increasingly urgent that we engage these students where they live: in front of their computers. But there is limited data proving the effectiveness of science video games, and not everyone is willing to take their value on faith. "I would be highly skeptical," says Keith Sheppard, coordinator of the Science Education Program at Columbia University's Teachers College. Sheppard believes that what students and teachers need is more time focused on science education, not necessarily more technology. But this may be a point of view already shared by the gamers. "It's a matter of economics," says Dr. Michelle Lucey-Roper, Learning Technologies Project Manager at the FAS. "A teacher has 30 kids and limited time. One person can't handle that." A major benefit of educational games, according to the report, is that they exhibit "infinite patience." Interestingly, the gaming industry's enthusiasm for educational games falls somewhat short of full tilt. Having witnessed the total failure of Nintendo's "Donkey Kong Math" in the 1980s, many developers quietly closed the door on educational ventures and declared game over. "Most game companies are hostile to educational content," says Henry Jenkins III, head of the Comparative Media Studies at MIT. "Game companies like to appeal to rebellious adolescents, and they don't want to lose their street cred with teens." On the other side of the fence, some academics and educators worry that companies that do develop educational games put commerce before high scientific and educational standards. "Often university people get shut out," says Jim Horn, Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Monmouth University, who calls educational video games a "corporate idea." Of course, even advocates of educational gaming don't suggest that children should toss out their pencils and textbooks. "Clearly," the FAS report reads, "game techniques are not a universal solution to all education and training challenges. Their power depends on skillful integration with traditional teaching methods and other technical innovations. They do, however, appear to offer enormous power to meet a key national challenge in education." Laura Buchholz Links within this article: CO2FX Grand Theft Auto The Education Arcade FAS Report: "Harnessing the Power of Video Games for Learning" Immune Attack Gee, James Paul. 2003. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Palgrave MacMillan, 256 pgs.


Avatar of: Karen Malone

Karen Malone

Posts: 1

December 15, 2006

I consider myself on the cusp of the 'wired' generation, and as a graduate student at the age of 25 am often frustrated by near-retirement professors. Yes I did learn mendelian genetics from "virtual lab" games in high school, and live in front of my computer. While I am able to find information, not only literature but interact on forums for protocols and IM old labmates about where something is in the lab as if they were still sharing our office...some technophobic professors see a student in front of the computer and consider it "not working". They can not fathom the wealth of information that is available in bioinformatics databases, online searchable catalogues, etc. I see that it can be intimidating, even my younger nephews are quickly outpacing me, but could someone please tell them to get a clue? Of course they don't read The Scientist, they thinking sending emails with atttachments is a great accomplishment.

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