Programming Digital Fun Into Science Education

By Katie Ash — June 15, 2011 7 min read

Short video games played on mobile phones reinforce biology lessons for students in Boston. Digital games played on the Nintendo DS help 8th graders in New York City overcome misconceptions about photosynthesis. A library of free online simulations lets middle schoolers in Texas better visualize physics concepts.

“So much of learning is mediated through textbooks, and we know that in this day and age in the 21st century, we in fact need learning to happen in much richer, much more authentic kinds of settings,” says Margaret Honey, the president and chief executive officer of the New York Hall of Science, a hands-on science and technology center in New York City.

Despite a lack of hard-hitting research linking games and simulations to learning gains, researchers and educators alike are showing increasing interest in the potential these multimedia-rich instructional tools bring to the classroom, especially in science education.

“The simple truth is that with respect to games, we’re a long way from having the kind of robust body of evidence that says very clearly games that are designed in such a way have really positive impacts on learning,” says Honey.

Along with Margaret Hilton, a senior program officer for the Washington-based National Academies’ board on science education, Honey recently edited a report published by the National Research Council exploring the potential of games and simulations for science learning.

The report grew out of a two-day workshop on the topic that brought together experts on science games and simulations.

Daniel Schwartz, a professor in the school of education at Stanford University, in California, was one of the attendees at the gathering in Washington last year.

Although there is a lack of empirical evidence that games and simulations teach students better than other instructional methods, there are areas in which they could be particularly useful, he says.

“A lot of people see the potential on the back end,” Schwartz says. “[Games and simulations] can collect a lot of data about what people are doing, and we can really accelerate our ability to understand how people are learning.”

Games may also help prepare students to learn about a subject, he says.

“The idea is not that games should be conceptualized as self-standing units of curriculum,” Schwartz says. “They’re particularly good at certain types of things, and they prepare you to learn more deeply about the topic.”

Mobile Gaming

Eric Klopfer, an associate professor of science education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., also attended the workshop. His team at MIT has developed a series of biology games called UbiqBio, intended to be played in short bursts of time on mobile devices—in this case, Android phones.

The games were rolled out in a pilot effort in Boston-area schools in February.

Lauren Poussard is a biology teacher at Somerville High School in Somerville, Mass. She recently used one of the four UbiqBio games in her sophomore biology class. “[The students] absolutely love it,” she says.

In Biobot Bob’s molecule replicator game, created by Possible Worlds, players learn how to break apart and rearrange molecules in photosynthesis.

Poussard assigned the game for homework and used the curricular materials provided to discuss the topics in class.

Emma Lichtenstein, a 10th grade biology teacher at City on a Hill, a charter high school in Boston, is also taking part in the pilot. “The games are motivational. It makes the kid want to play,” she says. “Many went above and beyond” the 10 to 20 minutes she assigned.

It is too early to tell whether the games are increasing comprehension, she says, and she is unsure whether the students who did not advance to the higher levels of the game got enough practice with the advanced concepts.

In any case, the mobile format appeals to students, says Lichtenstein.

“They can play whenever, wherever,” she says. “This particular game doesn’t require long stretches of concentration, and that works for the mobile setting.”

The Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology has been creating a series of science and literacy games, Possible Worlds, designed to be played on the Nintendo DS.

The team started by identifying common scientific misconceptions, says Cornelia Brunner, the senior research scientist at the center. “It’s really hard for kids to [unravel those misconceptions] when they can’t even visualize or imagine what science teachers are talking about,” she says. “One of the big affordances of games is that they can make all kinds of things visible that aren’t normally visible.”

To help in better understanding photosynthesis, for instance, players embody the sun. They are then required to break apart water and air molecules and re-form them in order to defeat enemies and move on to the next level.

“Our whole focus is not on making the most wonderful, fabulous, best game, but to make something that actually fits [the classroom],” says Brunner. “We’re designing for regular teachers in ordinary classrooms with reluctant learners.”

Helene Hazzard recently wrapped up a unit using Possible Worlds with her 8th grade science classes in the 9,400-student William Floyd school district in Long Island.

Her students played the game over two class periods, and overall, the students who played it performed better on the end-of-unit test than those who did not, says Hazzard.

Hazzard was curious, though, whether students would remember those lessons when it came time to take the standardized tests at the end of the year.

“They’ll remember playing the game,” she says, “but will they remember what the game is about?”

Over the past seven years, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have been designing and building physics simulations for college and graduate students, and they have recently begun working with precollegiate classes.

“What we’re finding is high school teachers were using our [free, Web-based simulations] in their classes even though they weren’t specifically targeted to those ages,” says Noah Podolefsky, a research associate for the PhET Interactive Simulations Project.

Since August of last year, the team has been working with students in Dallas to modify existing simulations and create new ones targeted at middle schoolers.

“Although we don’t have a ton of hard data collected, [teachers say] that their students seem to be more engaged in the activities,” says Podolefsky. “They’re doing inquiry and actively learning. They’re exploring similar to the way that scientists would explore phenomena.”

Watching Electrons Move

The simulations are designed to be flexible and used as in-class activities, lecture demonstrations, or homework. But using simulations with middle schoolers presents some limitations that do not exist in higher education, Podolefsky says.

For instance, precollegiate teachers have to adhere to more standards than their higher education counterparts, he says, and their students are more likely to get distracted by the wide variety of features available to manipulate the simulation.

Evaluating the language in the simulations to make it understandable for middle schoolers, especially English-language learners, is also a concern, he says.

Pratim Sengupta, an assistant professor of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, in Nashville, Tenn., also creates online simulations for students through a project called NetLogo Investigations in Electromagnetism, or NIELS.

His project aims to help students understand the scientific concepts behind electricity.

Using the simulations helps students grasp “the meaning that’s hidden by equations,” Sengupta says. “[The students are] visualizing. They’re seeing an electron’s journey through the wire. They’re seeing a narrative play out in real time.”

Research published by Sengupta in 2008 found that 5th grade students who took part in NIELS were able to provide more accurate, comprehensive explanations of circuit behaviors after using the simulation than before. The study aimed to show that 5th graders benefit from learning about electrical conduction on the microscopic level, something the national science education standards, produced by the Washington-based National Research Council, deem premature.

“Students have the intuitive repertoire to understand microscopic levels sooner than the macroscopic levels of properties,” Sengupta says. “What we need to do is reconstruct disciplines of knowledge not in terms of formulas, but in terms of what kids know.”


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