Curriculum

Roblox Makes Its Move Into STEM Education. What Are the Risks for Schools?

By Benjamin Herold — May 15, 2023 3 min read
Pathogen Patrol is PLTW's first learning experience on Roblox, providing educators with innovative tools to help students enhance their critical thinking abilities, learn in unique ways, and work together in teams.
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The popular Roblox virtual environment is expanding its K-12 footprint with a series of new immersive online “learning experiences” developed in partnership with established nonprofit STEM education groups. The games are products of the Roblox Community Fund, announced in late 2021 by the multibillion dollar gaming platform with roughly 60 million daily active users.

“The vast majority of our partners have pre-existing distribution in schools, and that’s appealing to us, because we want to make sure we’re not funding outstanding educational experiences that sit on the vine,” said Rebecca Kantar, Roblox’s vice president of education.

Among the new games are Mission: Mars, developed by the Museum of Science in Boston and Filament Games to develop students’ engineering skills by allowing them to plan and execute virtual space missions, and Pathogen Patrol, developed by Tipping Point Media and Project Lead the Way, the latter of which already provides STEM curricula and training to more than 12,000 U.S. schools.

Pathogen Patrol, which was released to the public on May 9, places users inside the body of a virtual person, where they assume the roles of different types of white blood cells charged with fighting off a viral or bacterial infection. Multiplayer options are available to foster collaboration.

The goal is to help students understand the human immune system as a complex system with many parts that interact in complicated ways. Starting next school year, the game will be a supplemental part of the Human Body Systems course in Project Lead the Way’s Biomedical Science career pathway, which currently counts 150,000 high school participants.

“This is an additional tool to reinforce those classroom experiences and help students learn in new and different ways,” said David Greer, the executive vice president and chief program officer of Project Lead the Way.

The game will also be freely available to all Roblox users, nearly half of whom are under 13.

Roblox itself is not a game per se, but a virtual environment in which players connect and interact across millions of “experiences” created by a network of independent developers who earn money based on players’ engagement and in-game purchases. While the platform is popular among young people, Roblox does not currently have a large presence in schools. That’s a reality the company, whose stated goal is to reach 100 million students worldwide by the end of the decade, hopes to change.

Part of Roblox’s unique appeal is how it allows users to create customized avatars of themselves that remain consistent across the platform’s many experiences, from virtual schools to fashion shows. Greer said students playing Pathogen Patrol in school will be able to “bring their own Roblox identity to this game, just like they would any other Roblox game.”

Potential problems for use in schools

But there are potential downsides to that approach. Roblox has long battled issues with scammers and predators, the platform’s business model depends on in-game sales, and other countries such as Singapore have been cracking down on users being radicalized during in-game play by extremist groups such as ISIS.

Greer described Roblox as “committed to creating educational environments that have a kind of fence between the public Roblox platform and the educational side,” a notion that would seem to be at odds with users bringing their existing Roblox identities into school-based Roblox games. A spokeswoman for the company provided a list of safety features that Roblox offers, including parental controls; an internal trust, safety, and security team; and limits on the types of features such as voice chats that younger users can access.

It also remains an open question whether students’ in-game progress through experiences such as Pathogen Patrol will result in learning that translates to success on standardized tests and career readiness. As a company, Kantar said, Roblox uses a series of game-based tasks built on the Roblox platform to screen candidates for engineering and other jobs, a sign of its own belief that skills developed within its virtual environment transfer to real life. But when it comes to the company’s new educational experiences, it will be up to Roblox’s nonprofit partners to decide whether and how to assess what students are actually learning.

“I’m not ready to go out on a limb and say that any of our partners are ready to try to prove in a causal way that performance in a [Roblox] experience is predictive of anything else,” said Kantar. “But I hope we’ll see students grasping more complex concepts and practicing more challenging skills.”

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