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11 Lessons About Game-based Learning and STEM Education

From MIND's STEM-connector townhall with pioneering educators and experts in game-based learning.

By Christine Byrd April 12, 2016

MIND's third annual K-12 Game-a-thon is now well underway, challenging students from across the country to design, build and share their own math games. If you're cruious about how game-based learning can engage and excite kids around STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), it's worth checking out the recorded townhall hosted by STEMconnector on “Leveraging Game-based Learning to Increase STEM Engagement.” In case you missed it, here are 11 lessons we learned from the teachers, students, game-designers, philanthropists and experts who participated.

  1. Games are already ubiquitous

Edie Fraser, CEO of STEMconnector, pointed out that 4 out of 5 American households currently have a gaming device, according to a recent study (ESA, 2015). “We know that game-based learning is revolutionizing learning in school and out of school and ... keeping kids engaged, so it is exciting.”

  1. Games prepare students for careers in the STEM fields

The kind of problem solving required in STEM careers bears a strong resemblance to certain skills fostered by gaming, pointed out Nigel Nisbet, a former teacher and MIND Research Institute’s Vice President of Content Creation. “I think one of the things that’s important to realize is that, for people facing challenges in STEM careers, those challenges don’t switch off, it’s not like a textbook you can close and then go home. When you’re faced with a challenge it’s something that you really need to be immersed in in order to solve and games provide that immersive opportunity for problem solving that you just can’t replicate anywhere else.”

  1. Kids like the “hard fun” of gaming

Game designers use the term “hard fun” to describe experiences that are simultaneously enjoyable and difficult. “That’s really why we play games in general, whether it’s a video game or basketball or chess,” said Gregg Toppo, USA Today’s education reporter and author of The Game Believes in You. “We’re both having fun and doing something that’s really challenging.”

“If there’s any sort of theme to [The Game Believes in You], it’s that ... games have the potential to make school both enjoyable and also really challenging for this generation and also for generations to come.”

  1. Games help introduce above grade-level concepts

Becky Renegar, who specializes in gifted education in Piqua Central Intermediate School in Piqua, Ohio, extolled the benefits of using online games to provide challenges for her above-grade level students. Additionally, groups of her students developed their own games in the National K-12 Game-a-thon, which provided rich opportunities for advancing their mathematical skills.

“Many times they’re motivated to learn new math as the need arises,” she said. “For example, I had two students who designed a skeeball machine for their game and in order to do that they had to determine the slope of the ramp. So we looked at the Pythagorean theorem – and these are third graders!”

  1. Games reduce fear of failure

Incorporating game-based learning into her math program helped teacher Shannon Duncan at McPherson Magnet School eliminate the word “failure” from her class. “Real failure is simply in the never trying,” she said.

For more on the importance of failure, check out our blog “The Best Lesson: Learning from Failure.”

  1. Games encourage a growth mindset

In games, everyone is capable of completing the level and moving forward in the game. Growth-mindset is the recognition that intelligence is not a fixed attribute, anyone can learn and grow. Middle school math teacher Shannon Duncan said game-based learning had been a “huge catalyst” to helping her students embrace a growth mindset. “Having that growth mindset with math is the only way we’re going to get our kids on the higher level.”

  1. Games can be used across the curriculum

Shannon Duncan described using Minecraft to ask a student this question: How would you use blocks to build the White House in Minecraft?

“Our kids who traditionally struggle will find that they really excel with these types of questions. Even though it’s using math skills they’re using something they love and that’s the video game playing,” she explained. “We use this as a catalyst to kind of get them sucked into our world, if you will, which helps us because it empowers them to understand that there’s really math in everything you do.”

  1. Don’t just play games – create your own!

Uma, mother of the 6-year-old coder, said all kids are interested in gaming, and most kids are natural problem solvers from a young age. When her son Kedar wanted to play his dad’s Wii nonstop, she decided to have him create his own games for it. “It occurred to me that as long as a child can read, they can do programming.”

Similarly, teacher Shannon Duncan said she has used everything from monopoly to dominos as educational games in her classroom. “Game based learning is what you make of it and what you manipulate the game to become.”

For examples of student-created math games including board games, card games, floor mats, and computer programs, view the National K-12 Game-a-thon’s Hall of Fame.

  1. Gaming knows no age limits

From the delightfully precocious home-schooled six-year-old who loves games so much that he codes his own to the father of grown children who’s written the book on gaming – everyone in the Townhall had experienced true joy and delight with educational games.

  1. Corporate philanthropy community supports game-based learning

PricewaterhouseCooper’s Eileen Buckley explained how their overarching strategy these past years and beyond includes partnering with MIND:  “[PwC is] moving more into the digital space. We appreciate how effective learning through games has proven to be, and so we’re investing heavily in innovation through technology and digital based tools.”

  1. You can be both a mathematician and bibliophile

Twelve-year-old New Jersey student Jemma, who created the game Crop Computation in last year’s Game-a-thon, said she’s interested in a career in biology or computer science, yet her favorite subject is English. Would it be okay to go to college and double major in math and something like Russian literature, she wondered aloud?  But MIND’s Nigel Nisbet told her not to worry: CEO and co-founder of MIND Research Institute, Matthew Peterson, triple majored in Chinese literature and language, biology and engineering. After all, college -- like game-based learning -- is what you make of it.

Interested in hearing more? Watch the entire townhall:

Interested in engaging your children or students in game-based STEM learning? Check out the K-12 Game-a-thon, running now through July 1, 2016. 

Learn More about the K-12 Game-a-thon

Editor's note: This blog was originally published in September 2015, and has been updated to include information about the 2016 K-12 Game-a-thon.

Christine Byrd is a communications manager for MIND Research Institute, and parent of two game-loving kids.

Christine Byrd writes about STEM and education issues for MIND Research Institute.

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