Can Video Games Reshape STEM Education?

Game-based learning has been growing in popularity in recent years as more educational institutions are considering implementing video games in learning. There are still some doubts and from cautious parents as to whether video games can really be used as an educational tool. Chitra Sethi writes for, September 2012.

Geckman teaches basics of nanotechnology to middle-school students.
Geckman teaches basics of nanotechnology to middle-school students.

An explosion in his laboratory has shrunk Harold to nanoscale and flung him to the ceiling. As Harold journeys through strange new worlds, his lab partner, Nikki, helps him to understand nanoscale forces to get back to full size. Harold must find all the pages of his notebook and all the parts of the broken shrinking machine but first he must stop a tiny alien race, the Nanoids, who have been stealing his technology.

This might sound like a plot of a science-fiction film, but it is the storyline for Geckoman, an online video game developed by Northeastern University researchers at the Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN), with funding from the National Science Foundation and 15 Days LLC, a company founded by Northeastern alumni and faculty.

More and more games are teaching complex subjects such as nanotechnology to middle-school students. Principles and lessons are built into the game, "if done correctly, gaming can be a very powerful teaching tool," says CHN director Ahmed Busnaina.

Games allow kids to experiment, explore and solve problems in a virtual environment. "There are certain facts about science that engineers should know but those facts have much more meaning when you use them to solve problems. Video games challenge players with difficult problems and motivate the players to solve problems," says Eric Klopfer, associate professor of education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP).

Video Games in STEM Education
Video Games in STEM Education

Video games can enable STEM education from elementary school all the way through college as they teach skills such as analytical thinking, multitasking, strategizing, problem-solving, and team building. “Traditional learning has provided superficial learning through text books. Games are best at teaching a deeper level of learning,” says Klopfer.

Busnania says that students have a preference to learn through game play over conventional lecturers and the results of student play tests conducted for Geckoman indicate that they are learning new concepts. The Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts did a preliminary evaluation of the game. Three groups of students who played Geckoman were asked to complete content-specific pre-tests before they played the game and post-tests after playing the game. The difference between pre- and post-tests showed that the game was successful in helping students learn the science concepts presented in it.

Video games represent the kind of interactive and self-paced learning that people see as a future guided by technology. Klopfer says, however, games can’t replace traditional teaching methods. “I don’t think games should be the only component. Games do provide students the opportunity for self-learning but students need guidance and mentorship. The role of the teacher here is not diminished but becomes more challenging and interesting in helping the students to learn with this kind of medium.”

Read the whole article here.