Learning Wins in STEM Games

At the New York Botanical Gardens, students and parents play Biome Builder, a game from New York City–based learning games company Killer Snails. Photo courtesy of Killer Snails

Jamie Easley, eighth-grade science teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School in Dubuque, Iowa, says she created Science Ball—a baseball-like game—“to make test review interesting [for students]…It’s important to find every way possible to increase engagement and interest in the material we’re teaching, especially if it’s an unusual way to do it,” she contends.

Easley labels “bases” in her classroom, and divides students into two teams. One student from each team “answers [short-answer or multiple-choice] questions simultaneously on small whiteboards, then they reveal [their answers at the same time].” Correct answers allow players to advance to a base; incorrect ones result in an out. Easley selects questions for each pair, and pairs students of similar levels so she can choose appropriate questions—a must for special-needs students.

To inform students about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers, Donna Muller, former K–8 technology teacher at Atonement Lutheran School in Metairie, Louisiana, says she turned The Game of Life® into a STEM careers game by creating her own “career cards, basing them on Career and Technical Education (secondary certificate) careers versus [the] college-bound careers. It makes it meaningful and shows career pathways.”

Muller has used other popular games in her classroom, many of which have free digital versions online: Kahoot!® for vocabulary; Heads Up to teach about scientific processes like the water cycle; Pictionary and Win, Lose, or Draw because “they allow students to draw [things like] the parts of a cell. [Games] are a way to reach [students with] different learning styles.”

When students excel at the games but don’t perform well on tests, “the games can show me why the tests aren’t working…If you set the game up right, it should test content knowledge,” Muller explains. However, “games should not be the ‘end-all,’ they should help students get comfortable with the material, but students also need to do projects, hands-on [learning].

“You are getting cross-curricular with games, which helps you meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS),” asserts Muller. In addition, “you are actually teaching those [21st-century soft skills], such as learning to work together and it’s okay to not have the right answer; just keep trying…Students need to [be able to] make mistakes without it counting [against their grade].”

“Games [equalize] my class, even when some students have prior knowledge, and give everyone an activity to talk about,” says Cynthia Hopkins, seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Kaffie Middle School in Corpus Christi, Texas. She has students play games related to concepts before teaching the concepts. “I use a game called Suspend to teach [about] unbalanced and balanced forces,” she notes. Suspend involves hanging notched wire pieces on a tabletop stand. Adding pieces shifts the balance, and players try to add all their game pieces without making the structure fall.

“[Suspend] is the first thing I do in my Forces and Motion unit. I give no initial explanation. The debrief is the important part: Why is [your structure] balanced or unbalanced?,” Hopkins relates.

To create her own game cards based on state test questions, Hopkins uses the free resources on Problem-Attic, one of many resources that she and a colleague presented during their Game On: Gaming With a Purpose session at the Science Teachers Association of Texas’s 2018 Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching.

Playing games with her students helps Hopkins “get to know them and allows me to check in with them during the year…I’m willing to look foolish,” she admits, “because sometimes it takes that to reach some of my students.”

In her games, Allyson Macdonald, a professor of educational sciences at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, Iceland, requires student preparation. For Sustainability Scrabble, each student “had to make five tiles…The tiles all had to be related to recent class work in sustainability and could be a word/ concept, a quote, or a picture (photograph or diagram)…The learning was in the questioning and defense of what [was] on the tile,” she explains.

Her Three More game familiarizes students “with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The year is 2025, and there are concerns that some of the goals will not be reached. Each person picks three of the 17 goals [that] they wish to alter in some way and [names] three additional goals,” Macdonald relates.

In each group, she explains, “two participants [decide] the steps they would take to introduce a project linked to the goals selected from the survey. The other two…[ask] searching questions about planning and implementation. The learning was in the questioning and defense of what was being proposed and audited.” Scores were determined by “clarity of proposal and feasibility, and additional points were given for incorporating an education project.”

Designing STEM Games

Whether teachers use commercially available games or create their own, they should always be sure to follow lab safety practices during gameplay. Other considerations include making sure all students can participate.

Valarie Broadhead, science teacher at Aliso Viejo Middle School in Aliso Viejo, California, says she has incorporated games “as part of my NGSS instructional strategies,” designing them “around special education students, then add[ing] on features and increas[ing] complexity for general education students.” She incorporates “visual aspects…especially [in] the instructions and content. Pictures, models, and the use of colors also help English language learners,” she notes.

Broadhead uses very large text so materials are easier to read, especially for students with visual impairments. She also places “pre-printed items (games, learning objectives, instructions, etc.) on their desks so they don’t have to look up at the board, reducing possible errors.” By using microphone enhancement, headsets with volume control, and print materials, students with hearing disabilities “don’t have to ‘hear’ the instructions to know how to play the game,” she explains.

“The great thing about science is that it’s really an active, engaging discipline, so games can be created [in which] student players are doing the work of the field,” contends Kathleen Mercury, who teaches gifted middle school students at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. “Students can [play] the role of engineers, learning how to create circuits by playing the right cards, or players can learn about the cycle of photosynthesis by moving the different elements around.”

Because she is “passionate about helping other teachers incorporate games and game design in their classes,” Mercury shares her game design teaching resources for free at www.kathleenmercury.com. “Playtesting prototypes is such an important part of the process for students to see,” she says, because “games, like any other open-ended work or research that starts with a question, are created through a process of inquiry, testing, and refinement. By modeling my willingness to engage in this process and to take feedback, they see the value of it, and that makes it easier for them to create and show their own unfinished work.”

Lindsay Portnoy, co-founder and chief learning officer of Killer Snails, a learning games company, says, “We wanted to make science accessible, but also impactful, so all of our games are based on both dynamic STEM content and extant standards.” In the BioDive game, for example, “student scientists collect data to iterate on their models as they work out their hypothesis, identifying how abiotic factors impact biotic factors across three marine ecosystems,” she notes.

“We’re also all parents and want to make games that are equally fun to play in class or at [home],” Portnoy asserts.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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