Can Digital Games Help Students Conquer the Toughest Science Content?

By Sean Cavanagh — June 27, 2016 2 min read
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Most teachers gathered here for the ISTE annual summit would probably agree that games are meant to be lively and engaging for students—after all, that’s the point.

But educators are sometimes less clear on how they’re supposed to use digital games in the classroom for something more than just play, so that those tools and platforms challenge students and draw them into rich academic work—rather than just distracting them from the pressing work at hand.

On Monday, at one of the many sessions focused at ISTE’s conference focused on digital gaming, Ralph Bouquet, the education and outreach manager at the TV series NOVA, argued that games can play a critical role in helping students conquer some of the most essential, and the most difficult, material in science.

Bouquet’s session, titled “Play Science Games to Teach the Tough Topics,” introduced attendees to a series of NOVA online resources and games. Several of them focused on building understanding of, and shattering myths about, critical concepts like evolution, the bedrock scientific theory that is widely misunderstood by students, and teachers.

Another NOVA resource offers “cybersecurity lab,” (an image from the site is shown below) that introduces students to hacking, presents them with the perils it poses and challenges them to set up firewalls to stave off virtual intruders.

Other games and challenges on the site presented by Bouquet focused on RNA molecules, clouds, energy, and the sun.

The appeal of games in science lessons, as described by Bouquet, are in some ways what make them appealing to educators working across K-12 subjects.

Games offer a blend of media, inquiry, and assessment possibilities—a “soft space for low-stakes testing,” he said. They tend to engage students and encourage them to collaborate.

And there are indications that under the right circumstances, games can have a positive influence on student achievement. Bouquet cited research (from SRI and others) showing gains associated with the use of digital games in classrooms.

Teachers across the country appear to be increasingly enchanted by the possibilities. A recent survey by the organization Project Tomorrow found that in 2015, 48 percent of K-12 teachers reported using game-based learning environments in their classes, more than double the number five years earlier.

ISTE officials appear to be attuned to that interest. By my informal count, at least 40 sessions at the conference were in some respect focused on gaming. NOVA seems to be saying that educators using gaming shouldn’t be afraid to set their sights high.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.