High-Tech Simulations Linked to Learning

By Katie Ash — April 06, 2009 10 min read
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To build on classroom experiments and lectures, Daniel Sweeney has his 9th grade earth science students act out scientific concepts on a 15-by-15-foot mat on the floor of the room. Object-tracking cameras mounted on scaffolding around the space collect data based on the students’ movements while immersing them in the experience through a video projector and speakers, which provide visual and audio feedback in real time.

The Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, or SMALLab, which refers to the floor mat and trussing around it, is being used only at the 1,360-student Coronado High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., for now. A second one is in the works as part of a new school, called Quest to Learn, that is scheduled to open in New York City in the fall.

The program is part of a growing movement in schools to incorporate digital games and simulations into classrooms as a tool for raising achievement and preparing students for the technological challenges ahead of them. But the jury is still out on the link between gaming and academic learning.

“We’re trying to really bring together emerging technologies with what’s known about K-12 learning, and advance the two of those together,” said David Birchfield, an assistant professor in the arts, media, and engineering program at Arizona State University, in Tempe, and the leader of the SMALLab project, which is in its fourth year.

The SMALLab mat is open on all sides so students can walk freely from the classroom into the space, and all students can communicate with each other and take part in the experience. Students hold “glow balls”—different-colored plastic balls that light up—which are tracked by the cameras in the system to allow participation in “scenarios,” which are unique to each lesson.

Ninth grade students at Coronado High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., walk on a mat that uses an interactive video-projection program and gaming techniques to teach academic concepts.

Using the glow balls, students are able to complete activities within SMALLab that illustrate hard-to-understand concepts.

For example, to illustrate the concept of metaphor to 9th graders, students were asked to stand in the space to pair up words and pictures that were projected onto the platform using the glowballs. Students then needed to create a metaphor from the words and pictures they chose and give a justification for it.

“It’s definitely more engaging than regular class, ... and it’s a really good outlet for [the students] because it allows them to act out some of the information that they know by moving around in the space,” Mr. Sweeney said.

Although incorporating digital simulations and games into curricula is far from the norm in K-12 schools, educators, researchers, and game developers agree that attitudes toward using those media as teaching tools are changing. Proponents say progress is being made toward a meaningful integration of games and simulations into mainstream classrooms.

Even so, experts caution against using such media for learning simply because those new tools seem like an exciting way to teach or learn. Digital games and simulations, they say, should be used to improve the learning of academic concepts.

Tests before and after using SMALLab have found that students who use it have shown statistically significant gains in their overall comprehension of subject matter, Mr. Birchfield said.

“[Students’] ability to explain why they gave a response was dramatically increased,” he said, “and on free-response questions, they gave much more articulate answers with much more specific language” than did students who did not use SMALLab.

Greg McMullin, a chemistry and earth science teacher at Coronado High, said he has noticed that test scores go up on units for which he teaches using SMALLab, and he’s noticed an even bigger jump in scores for lower-achieving students.

Feedback from students in Mr. Sweeney’s class suggested that the tool was both engaging and challenging.

“I think it’s easier to understand what’s going on because you can see, and it makes you think hard about the SMALLab,” said 9th grader Jessica Mejia.

A classmate, Dominic Heurta, agreed. “You get to interact and enjoy yourself, but most of all, you learn more,” he said. “You don’t get bored, and you actually think about the things you are doing.”

Students from Mr. McMullin’s earth science class had similar reactions to SMALLab.

“It felt like the students who were participating [in SMALLab] learned a lot more than those who weren’t participating because many people learn by hands-on activities,” said Katie McCarthy, a 9th grader.

The price tag of about $30,000 for SMALLab is hefty, but on par with the cost of a new computer lab.

Mr. Birchfield of Arizona State hopes that more schools will begin to pay attention to the successes Coronado High has had with the instructional tool so far. In addition to earth science and chemistry, the school has used SMALLab for physics, math, language arts, and English-as-a-second-language classes.

Involving Teachers

Part of SMALLab’s success and a key component of effectively using games and simulations in the classroom, said both Mr. Birchfield and Mr. Sweeney, was the decision to involve teachers in the development of the lesson plans from the start.

Lure of the Labyrinth is a new Web-based prealgebra game aimed at middle school students.

Every week, Mr. Birchfield, along with a team of graduate students from ASU, meets with Coronado High teachers after school to discuss the best uses for SMALLab.

“The curriculum is developed in conjunction with the technology itself,” said Mr. Birchfield, “and teachers are partners in the design of everything.”

Similarly, for a new Web-based prealgebra game aimed at middle school students called Lure of the Labyrinth, game developers from the Boston-based FableVision and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology worked closely with a group of teachers to design and develop the game from start to finish.

Spearheaded by Maryland Public Television as part of the Learning Games to Go initiative, which aims to create learning games that support students’ prealgebra and reading skills, the game is aligned with Maryland State Voluntary Curriculum standards as well as national standards.

“[Teachers] have every reason to be skeptical” of using games in the classroom,” said Scot Osterweil, the creative director of the game at MIT’s Education Arcade, a research initiative at the university that investigates learning through games. “From our perspective, the goal was to come up with something the teacher can adopt without taking a big risk,” he said.

The game addresses three prealgebra topics—proportions, variables and equations, and numbers and operations—and the students must complete three puzzles, which are designed to enforce the concepts behind the topics, in order to move on.

One of the features of the game that came from conversations with teachers was the option for students to play the puzzles individually in addition to the longer version, said Gary Goldberger, an executive creative director of the game from FableVision.

“That very little thing was something that teachers asked for,” he said. “It’s something you might not have thought of as a developer without that conversation.”

Lure of the Labyrinth is a new Web-based prealgebra game aimed at middle school students.

In addition, Lure of the Labyrinth, which is available for free online, has extensive professional-development materials for teachers, including descriptions of the game, suggestions on when and how to use it, and resources for integrating the game into the classroom. Each topic represents a “wing” in the labyrinth, and the puzzles that correlate to those wings are “rooms.”

Students must successfully complete each puzzle three times in order to eliminate the room.

The game also allows teachers the transparency to see exactly what students are doing in the game, how long they’ve played, when they last logged in, and what they might be struggling with—features that John-Paul Bennett, who teaches middle school math and social studies at the 170-student St. Casimir Catholic School in Baltimore, particularly appreciates.

“The educational support tools are amazing,” said Mr. Bennett, who was part of the group of teachers involved in developing the game. “It has a back end, which the students don’t see, that just has an incredible amount of data for teachers.”

The flexibility built into Lure of the Labyrinth allows teachers to use it in many different ways, and Mr. Bennett often uses it in his math classes as a way to introduce his students to concepts before his official lesson.

“The students often play at home or at the library, and when I come to a content area that overlaps with the game, I will look and see how many of them have played the puzzle that deals with the concept,” he said. “It gives me a gauge [of their understanding] even before I start the lesson.”

Malasha Jones, 15, of Coronado High School, uses an interactive video tool for a science class.

And although it may take longer upfront to get the lesson ready, Mr. Bennett believes that the game ultimately saves time by preventing confusion and providing a better grasp of the concepts.

“One of the hardest parts is stepping back and not showing them the formula, but letting them struggle through it and figure it out,” he said. “But if they do, they have a much richer understanding, and that understanding is ready when you come in with a formal lesson.”

Cautionary Notes

Because games do take longer to incorporate into curricula, Richard N. Van Eck, an associate professor in the instructional design and technology program at the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, encourages teachers to use games only in areas in which other teaching tools have not been successful.

“Given that it can be labor-intensive, it makes more sense to reserve this kind of approach for content that you know is difficult for students to master,” he said.

“Game-based learning isn’t going to work for everyone, it’s not going to work all the time, and it’s not going to work for all your needs,” Mr. Van Eck said. “It’s just one tool in your toolbox that goes along with all the other tools that you have.”

Keeping that in mind can prevent educators from being disillusioned by games, which are often billed as a “silver bullet” technique to solve all the problems in a classroom, said Christopher J. Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who studies simulations and games in education.

Nate Kaim, 15, uses the SMALLab interactive video-projection program at Coronado High School for an earth science class.

“You have to start with the issue and ask yourself, ‘Is there a way that gaming or simulation might help me in wrestling with this issue?’ as opposed to saying, ‘Whatever the problem is, if I just put gaming in, it’s going to get better,’ ” he said.

Part of the reason why integrating games and simulations into mainstream classrooms is so difficult is the difference between what games teach and what is emphasized in a traditional curriculum, said Mr. Van Eck.

“One of the biggest challenges we have with traditional curriculum is that it emphasizes factual knowledge. Games tend to promote higher-level kinds of thinking, like problem-solving and critical thinking,” he said.

“Schools do have to change in some fairly fundamental ways to make the best use of game-based learning,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some meaningful things that can happen at the classroom level.”

Games Inspire a School

One school that is planning to address such concerns head-on is Quest to Learn, a 6th to 12th grade public school slated to open this coming fall in New York City with an inaugural 6th grade class.

The school, which is being designed and developed by the Institute of Play in collaboration with New Visions for Public Schools, both of which are nonprofit organizations based in New York City, will center around game design and game-inspired teaching methods, said Katie Salen, the executive director of the Institute of Play.

Students at Quest to Learn will take part in “missions”—equivalent to a unit or class—that are broken down into smaller “quests,” or lessons, Ms. Salen said.

And instead of dividing the curriculum into the traditional subjects—mathematics, language arts, history, science, and so on—the school will organize its classes, which will be 80 minutes long, into “domains.”

Those areas will be: being, space, and place, an integrated humanities domain; individual contributions, which will focus on civics and history through the lens of culture and civilization; code worlds, which will look at the process of decoding in areas of math, computer programming, and language arts; and wellness, in which students will learn about health.

“Games are what kids do,” Ms. Salen said. “It’s this deeply imaginative space that kids love.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is sponsored by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2009 edition of Education Week as High-Tech Simulations Linked to Learning


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