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Boosting STEM Education with Gaming (and Design)

At the Playmaker School in Santa Monica, Calif., design complements the use of video games and other creative approaches to learning STEM. Image © Ryan Gobuty.

The chorus of voices championing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education grows louder by the day. And rightly so. Of the 34 countries that took the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, the U.S. placed 21st in science and 26th in math. Not the kind of results we’ve come to expect from our students.

As our country explores a patchwork set of solutions to raise STEM achievement scores, one tactic that has received a healthy dose of attention is the use of video games as an educational tool. It’s an approach that seems tailor made for today’s world, where even common tasks now have the look and feel of video games. Everything from working out (via Nike+) to waiting on a cab (Uber) to boosting one’s memory (Luminosity) has been gamified to a certain degree.

The gamification of STEM education received a major boost when President Obama launched the National STEM Video Game Challenge at the White House. Now in its fourth year, the Video Game Challenge is a design and engineering competition that partners students with mentors and seeks to awaken a passion for STEM through competitive gaming.

With growing support for video games as a teaching tool, one thing is clear: educational institutions that can’t support them and other digital technologies run the risk of falling behind. Video games will play a significant role in future education efforts, and the sooner schools and other institutions embrace these burgeoning tools the sooner we can expect to see results.

But to fully understand why learning environments must be reshaped to support video games and other digital technologies, one must first understand the types of learning they offer.

With the potential to be more than just another trendy fad bolted on to our outmoded industrial-age education system, video games could serve as an instrument of what some researchers see as a new model of education. According to a report issued by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that model is based on the notion that learning is a “context-based processes mediated by social experiences and technological tools.” Because of their emphasis on shared immersive experiences, investigation, and problem-solving, video games are especially well-suited for this new education paradigm.

There is already an abundance of evidence that points to video games as a catalyst for STEM achievement. The aforementioned National STEM Video Game Challenge offers up a sampling on its website:

    Several studies suggest that it is possible for children to learn both scientific concepts and scientific thinking from making video games. In addition, game design has been shown to teach children math skills ranging from fractions to variables to graphing.

Researchers at New York University (NYU) and the City University of New York (CUNY) have also witnessed the positive effects of math-based video games on middle schooler’s motivation to learn, as NYU notes on its website:

    While playing a math video game either competitively or collaboratively with another player—as compared to playing alone—students adopted a mastery mindset that is highly conducive to learning.

The Playmaker School. Image © Ryan Gobuty.

As part of this line of research, NYU has developed a Media and Games Network (MAGNET) facility (which Gensler designed) in Brooklyn to investigate not only more effective game-creation strategies but also the impact of video games on numerous activities. The MAGNET space brings together students and faculty from a range of NYU disciplines and schools, including the Tish School of the Arts; the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development; the Polytechnic School of Engineering; and the Computer Science Department of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. With research labs, classrooms, a black-box theater, a games library, and more, the facility will allow its diverse user groups to conduct collaborative, interdisciplinary research on this increasingly important subject.

Yet when it comes to the subject of designing K-12 facilities to support video games and the accompanying new learning model, there are still many unanswered questions: How do you effectively design spaces to facilitate both face-to-face interaction and digital learning? How do you design schools to support a range of digital devices—including video games, laptops, tablets, and smart boards—yet keep costs and maintenance requirements down? How do you incorporate the flexibility needed to adjust to rapidly changing technology? Should we begin to think of schools more along the lines of labs geared toward creation and investigation? And specifically for Gensler, how does our experience designing for the video game and media industries influence our design of learning environments?

We began exploring answers to these and other questions when we partnered with GameDesk, an education non-profit, and the private New Roads School in Santa Monica to design the PlayMaker School.

The Playmaker School. Image © Ryan Gobuty.

PlayMaker, also based in Sana Monica, was conceived as a next-generation school that relies on playing, making, discovery, and inquiry to meet state and national academic standards. Instead of classrooms, the school offers a suite of spaces that are interconnected physically and visually and organized into three distinct areas: an ideation lab where students collaborate in project-based learning scenarios; a maker lab, where students build and prototype objects; and an immersive gaming and learning zone, where students can try out the games they create as well curriculum software that Gamedesk has developed. In addition to teaching STEM subjects, Playmaker is also designed to encourage the kind of creativity, intellectual curiosity, and non-linear thinking needed for the 21st Century.

With PlayMaker still in its early stages (the school opened in 2012), it remains to be seen whether it can be implemented on a broad scale and how it will impact each student in the long run. For now, educators must continue to experiment with radical new approaches to turn around our flagging education system. In addition, the design community must continue to find creative ways to support those approaches.

Of course, it must be said that video games are no magic bullet. They are simply one of several potentially effective tools in the quest for a new way to educate tomorrow’s citizens. In reality, the larger issue at hand is how STEM education influences the way people navigate their experiences. As The Washington Post noted recently, Dr. Arthur Costa, Professor of Education, Emeritus, of California State University Sacramento, put it best when he wrote “The critical attribute of intelligent human beings is not only having information, but also knowing how to act on it.”

Sumita Arora is a co-leader of Gensler’s global media practice. She leverages her diverse background to deliver next-generation media projects. Her multi-disciplinary expertise in campus planning, architecture, and workplace allows her to design integrated and adaptable spaces for today’s converged media environment. Contact her at sumita_arora@gensler.com.
David Broz co-leads Gensler’s education and culture practice. He uses a research-based approach to design educational environments in response to today’s digital-native students. His conversations with administrators, professors, and futurists have led him to publish several studies that show how space can support learning and transform the overall campus experience. Contact him at david_broz@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (4)

say, what a cool article that was...I am working on a piece about Maker spaces and culture and was intrigued by several of the photos and the references to STEM...
11.12.2014 | Unregistered Commenterdoug wittnebel
The United States is your playground , roads and what it has to them . All types of terrain imaginable will be at your fingertips, the streets of downtown to the suburbs , country roads to the fields , canyons with sand dunes and even real race tracks.
11.26.2014 | Unregistered Commenterfind out here
Nice idea! I would like to apply this ideas at my learning center. https://plus.google.com/114885280571457611601.
12.13.2014 | Unregistered CommenterSandra Gill
I am quite impressed with the article and the ideas introduced in general. Involving gaming and design in STEM education is necessary and this need has been obvious for a while, but there a few people that are able to integrate them in an appropriate way. Hopefully the MAGNET will have a tremendous success.

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