Game technologies can facilitate embodied learning strategies, which connect movement to concepts. (SMALLAB LEARNING)
“Meeting kids where they are” is a familiar maxim to formal and informal educators alike. Some organizations are developing and using strategies students will recognize from video games, and even game technologies, to not only “meet” them, but also to educate them.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Molecularium Project launched the virtual “theme park” NanoSpace to reach kids online through “stealth education,” according to Richard W. Siegel, PhD, director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center. The Molecularium Project originally developed educational films, but the economic factors driving theaters’ choices of which films to screen hindered their distribution. “At that point, we decided to go where the kids are. We realized more and more kids are on the internet,” Siegel recalls.
NanoSpace is a “rich environment for young people to go in,” he asserts. “The site has four major areas [biology, water, materials, and multiple length scale] seeded with about 25 different games and several short videos” that interrelate the subject matter. “Gamers have fun, but they can be competitive with themselves and one another.”
Although primarily geared toward students, the site includes downloadable lesson plans and short videos for teachers “to help them get across what they are teaching,” Siegel says, adding, “It’s a new way to learn—very user friendly. Kids are entertained, but learning. We’re bouncing [ideas] off kids to make sure kids learn, that we’re at the right level, to make sure we’re doing things of value.”
NanoSpace officially launched in Fall 2012. Although still very new, Siegel hopes the site, as well as the overall Molecularium Project, will help the “whole problem the [United States] is having with a lack of good STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education…We’re all research scientists…we felt it was a very important part of our responsibilities to educate young people.”
Several years ago, while a member of his local school board, Siegel says, “I felt badly for teachers, who were excellent, but I knew they weren’t sufficiently grounded in the sciences to get across [the interrelationships of biology, chemistry, and physics]. On NanoSpace, all these things are pulled together. It’s not easy to bridge this gap. It’s not easy to do, but it’s imperative.”
“A lot of kids are falling through the cracks,” says Gerard LaFond, vice president of marketing at Alleyoop. He notes many students graduate from high school unprepared for college level math and science. Developed by Pearson, Alleyoop launched in February 2012 as a resource for students seeking online math help; last summer, science education was added. Alleyoop partners, ranging from National Geographic to the National Science Foundation to Virtual Nerd, supply video and interactive content.
When they first log on to Alleyoop, students are asked a series of “onboarding” questions to establish the level and subject matter they need assistance with. By completing interactive activities, quizzes, simulations, and labs, they earn progress points known as “Yoops,” the site’s currency and an essential part of the game experience. Users can trade Yoops (which also can be purchased) for one-on-one online tutoring. A leaderboard also allows students to track their progress relative to others using the site.
Although Alleyoop is not designed for educators to use while teaching (it doesn’t provide a means to gather information on student performance, other than having students self-report), teachers can refer students to the site as a supplement to in-class instruction. (Alleyoop plans to release tools for teachers this year.)
“Kids looking for online help through Google are going down a rabbit hole,” LaFond contends, since many students visit sites that don’t offer the assistance they need or simply get distracted by unrelated search results. “We make sure the time spent online getting extra help is fruitful.”
Alleyoop’s effectiveness ultimately “will be determined by (the number of) kids getting into college and staying there,” he concludes.
Learning With the ‘Flow’
Embodied learning theory maintains that associating movement with content results in better learning. The creators of SMALLab, an immersive virtual learning environment, introduced the Flow system last spring. Flow allows educators to implement embodied learning at a much lower cost: In classrooms with an interactive whiteboard, the only new equipment needed is a Kinect camera. The Flow learning scenarios (some available free, but most by subscription) are projected onto the whiteboard, and the camera captures students’ actions.
“The Kinect camera allows us to track [movements]. For example, with gears, students spin their arms to see a representation of the gears spinning,” explains David Birchfield, chief executive officer and chief technology officer at SMALLab Learning. The size of the circles students make with their arms determines the size of gears shown. In the Tour de Force scenario, he continues, “Students ‘driving’ bicycles switch gear size by spinning their arms in different-sized circles, tying their conceptual learning with movement…It’s really about getting students up [and] moving, out of their seats…Our theory is if students are physically active, [they] can open new pathways.”
With Flow in use in about 15 classrooms, Birchfield says, “Our work is really designed for teachers and students. [The scenarios] are designed to be facilitated. Similar to a project-based activity, the educator structures experience, encourages students, pushes students to push themselves…The activities are fitted together coherently. In the work we’re doing, we’re thinking specifically about the K–12 classroom, how to take the same tech[nology used in video games] and use it in class with 30 students.”
Teachers even help to develop Flow scenarios during professional development sessions. “We start with one fundamental learning objective and come up with a sketch of what the program should look like…We help teachers think through what [technology works]; we make sure what we’re doing creates scenarios useful to teachers,” he adds.
The Elizabeth Forward School District in Pennsylvania uses Flow as part of efforts to improve instruction. “We are trying to find ways to teach [in which] all students learn the concept,” says Assistant Superintendent Todd Keruskin. “We have a teacher who has taken off with this device, and the level of engagement has been unbelievable!”
While “getting teachers to think differently about teaching and learning through games” was a challenge, Keruskin says the scenarios engage not just the students actively participating, but also those on the sidelines. “It’s the students watching other students play the game and giving feedback for the students playing…Teachers need very good questioning techniques to pause the game and ask questions.”
Student achievement is measured through performance-based assessments. Keruskin observes, “Kids that always get it will get it through Flow and/or the SMALLab. We have noticed [that] through the Flow and the SMALLab, the students that tend to struggle with different concepts ‘get it’ now through gaming!”
Lezlie Strolle, a fifth-grade teacher at Pardes Jewish Day School in Phoenix, Arizona, has had a similar experience. “The students are fully engaged, eager to participate, and motivated! The students who are actively involved in the scenario, and the remaining members of the class [who] are not engaging with the scenario, all naturally become a part of the learning experience by sharing strategies, helping the participants work cooperatively, and/or suggesting ways to move their bodies that will assist with completion of the task. I find that the students are not competitive but work cooperatively to achieve a common goal.”
Strolle assesses learning informally, “observing students being involved in meaningful discussion of strategies, less timid with problem solving, and taking more of a leadership role in their own learning…My plan as I move forward is to design a pre- and post-assessment and possibly a rubric to evaluate the effect Flow has on the students’ understanding of a particular content.