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STEM Game Challenge

For the past several months, I have been concentrating on producing the iPhone game I designed, and job hunting.  I haven’t been doing much work on new designs.  But in late November, President Obama announced a STEM Game Challenge.  It’s part of a larger effort to step up Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education in public schools.  In recent decades, the United States has not scored well in international tests of science and math abilities.  We need to change that if we’re going to continue to be a successful nation.

President Obama’s live webcast got the design fires cooking again on the back burner of my mind.  Designing a STEM intensive video game is a truly challenging problem.  I recently came across this really excellent article that outlines all of the things one must consider in educational game design.  One line that rang particularly true for me was "Topics should not be forced--games should be one medium among many for learning in and out of the classroom." There are many attempts at games about topics like photosynthesis, but most of what results is not a game at all, but a more typical rote classroom activity.

For a game to succeed in a school environment, it has to fit the constraints of the school realities.  In most schools, that means limited internet access, limited work stations, and limited time.  Many class periods are under an hour, and when you subtract the time it takes to walk to the computer lab as a class and get 30 students settled at 30 machines that may or may not work, you’re left with a short play session.

The trickiest consideration though, is that you have to fit in an established curriculum.  Teachers are usually told exactly what to cover over the course of the academic year.  If you build the greatest science game in the world, a teacher may not be able to use it with her students if she already feels she doesn’t have enough time to cover the required curriculum.

Video games are a natural fit to teach STEM related skills, because many commercially produced games involve problem solving and collaboration skills.  (For more on this, see research conducted by EDC.)  When designed well, games help players hone the 21st century skills that employers look for today.  To be a successful scientist, you can’t merely follow established procedures 100% of the time.  Much of the student experience of STEM subjects in public school is about how well they can execute an established procedure, so video games are a great opportunity to let students do something completely different. 

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the STEM Game Challenge.  It's exciting that the President of the United States is acknowledging the potential of video games as a learning environment in such a powerful way.  This could turn out to be the best thing that's happened to educational games in a long time.

Picture of a game at the Museum of Science and Industry by croncast, shared via Creative Commons.

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Reader Comments (3)

Hi Traci--If you're interested in Obama's STEM initiative, you should also check out the Digital Media and Learning Competition:


2010 International HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition

TIMELINE EXTENDED----Application system to open January 15th

The theme of this year's Competition is Reimagining Learning and thereare two types of awards: 21st Century Learning Lab Designers and GameChangers.

Aligned with National Lab Day as part of the White House's Educate to Innovate Initiative, the 21st Century Learning Lab Designer awards
will range from $30,000-$200,000. Awards will be made for learning
environments and digital media-based experiences that allow young
people to grapple with social challenges through activities based on
the social nature, contexts, and ideas of science, technology,
engineering and math. Digital media of any type (social networks, games, virtual worlds, mobile devices or others) may be used.

The Game Changers category—undertaken in cooperation with Sony
Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA) and Electronic Arts (EA),
Entertainment Software Assocation, and the Information Technology
Industry Council—will award amounts ranging from $5,000-$50,000 for
creative levels designed with either LittleBigPlanet™ or Spore™
Galactic Adventures that offer young people engaging game play
experiences and that incorporate and leverage principles of science,
technology, engineering and math for learning.

Each category will include several Best in Class awards selected by
expert judges, as well as a People’s Choice Award selected by the
general public. The online application system will open on January 15
and will include three rounds of submissions, with public comment at
each stage.

Please see for all details.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Kimberly

Thank you, Nancy!

January 11, 2010 | Registered CommenterTraci Lawson

Hey, Traci.

The White House is going to officially kick off the National STEM Game Challenge this Thurs 9/16 and the Cooney Center will be there to announce our competition.

Watch this space: and spread the word!


September 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarj Kleinman

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