Bringing STEM into the 21st Century and Beyond
More than half of high school students are enrolled in schools that offer a STEM program. Most of these same students make the choice to opt out of these programs by the time they reach college. The main issue is that most students lose interest in STEM programs by the time they graduate from high school because of a lack of challenging curriculum that speaks to their generational interests. This is especially concerning since STEM-related skills are increasingly required for jobs in the economic market today.
With so many students coming into STEM programs from middle school, the programs need to find a way to sustain student interest in high school through higher education environments for them to remain competitive in the job market; particularly with the growing need in science and engineering jobs which is expected to reach 8.6 million by 2018.
Can Video Games Save STEM Programs?
With less than half a million students entering college in the U.S. in STEM-based programs, this number is paltry compared to the number of individuals who actively participate in video games each day. Nearly 11 million people globally play video games regularly and subscribe to play. Of that number, nearly 3 million are from the United States and Canada. The average demographic for the most popular games such as World of Warcraft are between the ages of 18 and 49 years old with a slightly larger percentage of men than women regularly playing. This is the demographic that STEM programs are losing when it comes to higher education programs based on the lack of interest that began in the high school-level programs.
Are there virtual games being used in STEM education now? Yes, and with success but mostly as a tool for additional activity in the classroom and not as a main component of the curriculum. For example, a virtual site called Whyville.com allows students to create their own virtual environments to participate in gaming activities related to science and math. With the subscriber base mostly in the U.S. and Canada, the site boasts over 4 million daily users and an average demographic of females in the age range of 8-14 years old.
Another game created for students to participate in a virtual environment to end famine around the world called Food Force was created in 2005 by the United Nations World Food Program. The goal of the game was to teach students how to understand food aid distribution and how it benefits those in need. In the first several weeks, it had over one million players which grew to over 4 million by the end of its first year. This included many classroom-related group projects as well as individual users.
Many STEM educators will admit that the students of today are far more interested in technology and media that are an integral part of their everyday lives then what is being offered to them in the classroom to develop their STEM skills. They will also say that even though they realize this interest is there, they either cannot for lack of funding, knowledge, or both utilized video games into their programs.
Yet, there are many video games that already exist that the game designers have incorporated STEM pedagogy into their game design. For example, SIMCityEDU: Pollution Challenge! was created for STEM programs specifically. It allows students to take on a leadership role within the virtual community as the mayor of a city. Their main task is to address the environmental struggles that their virtual city is faced with while still creating a healthy jobs market and keeping the citizens in a positive frame of mind about what they are doing as the mayor to improve the quality of life for the citizens. This type of virtual environment for STEM programs promotes critical thinking skills as well as an understanding of today’s real-world issues.
According to Brian Alspach, the Vice President of one of the largest game design companies in the world, E-Line Media
Giving students a platform to create their own virtual worlds is a pathway to learning in computer science or art in design skills
It is also a means by which students develop the 21st-century critical thinking skill of systems-based cognitive learning. Alspach goes on to say that through his game design platform Gamestar Mechanic, students can foster a, growing interest in learning and consistently find a challenge in what they are asked to do in the STEM classroom.
This type of challenge for students, according to Frank Lantz, the Director of Game Center at New York University, gives them an additional skill in learning a new language. Gaming language may not be considered a conventional means to develop a skill in literacy, but programming is its own unique language. This is a basic new literacy that each student can learn and develop into a professional skill for today’s job market.
What are the Benefits of Video Gaming in STEM Programs?
For the skeptical educator or even parent grappling with a way to find some redeeming STEM pedagogy or skills associated with video games, they can look to James Paul Gee, a leading proponent of the educational use of video games and a world-renowned educator in linguistic studies, bilingual education, and literacy. Gee has studied the evolution of the video game as an educational tool for the past 25 years, and has observed the learning benefits of utilizing video games in the classroom to develop “game-informed learning.” It became clear overall that utilizing video games in educational environments resulted in the following benefits to students:
- Games can be utilized at the pace of the individual students as opposed to a lecture
- Using a video game will present the student with multiple modes of learning in both a visual and an auditory perspective that relates directly to individual learning styles.
- Tasks in video games are scaffolded from simple to complex for mimic learning pedagogy.
- The activities are done repetitively to give long-term practice in a skill that will gradually present a more complex sequence of events.
- Situational meaning is given to objects and specific activities through specific social surroundings and content.
- Team-play promotes the concept of societal goals and the importance of positive social interaction.
- Positive rewards for each student result in immediate feedback as well as positive reinforcement on a consistent basis.
- Promotes self-efficacy leading to a higher level of confidence in achieving goals independently or leading a team to achieve goals.
- Teacher assessment for game-based learning can be tracked by the sequence of the student’s actions and how they communicate with the game. They can then be tracked or mapped into higher-level skills.
How Can It Be Educationally Incorporated?
There are several obstacles that educational institutions and districts commonly discuss as a roadblock to implementing 21st-century technology into STEM programs. The cost of a comprehensive video gaming library and a technological infrastructure that will support the system are two of the biggest factors.
Several publishers have set up dedicated divisions to the creation and promotion of video games for educational use. Many of them are designed to directly incorporate the STEM principles and core concepts. Many of these games are readily available through companies like GlassLab, an offshoot of Pearson’s Center for Digital Data, Analytics & Adaptive Learning, but instructors can also incorporate the curriculum into their STEM program that allows students to create their own platforms. Most of the video games are offered to educators to test, free of charge, to decide whether a program or district would like to incorporate the product into their STEM programs.
If infrastructure support is an issue, grants or dedicated organizations within the district or educational institution that are non-profit organizations can be set up to promote the addition of the video game component to STEM programs with fundraisers, parental involvement, and local business participation in the program. This also means that the organization takes on the task of finding technology experts who will either volunteer their time or be paid to consult with the educational institution to help with creating a sound technological system to support a video gaming element within the STEM program.
Who Will Choose the Video Game Product?
Many educators will say they are genuinely naïve and frankly ignorant to the gaming world. How can panels of educators, many of whom have been teaching for over twenty years or more have the educational expertise about gaming to choose from thousands for educational goals for a STEM program? This is where actual gaming experts can be incorporated into the program who will be able to work directly with educators who are experts in pedagogical structure who can suggest game-based learning activities that will promote STEM skills. This is coupled with the guidance of a technology expert who can “educate the educators” on what is a high-quality video game product and how to use it in their classrooms to get the maximum educational benefits.
One school that is promoting this type of professional development for teachers is the University of Iowa. Their Office of Teaching, Learning, and Technology offers one-day seminars that help educators to incorporate gaming into their classrooms.
How can the Inclusion of Video Games in STEM Programs Continue to Evolve?
The popularity of video games is slowly creating an organic segue-way to the inclusion of video games into the classroom, especially for STEM programs that are the bulk of curriculums throughout North America. The advent of teaching through video games has also led to the rise of competitions, such as the National STEM Video Game Challenge
The 2017 winners included nearly 25 high school and middle school students who created original educational video game designs using a variety of design platforms including Gamestar Mechanic, Gamestar Maker,and Unity game design platforms to name just a few.
These types of competitions will continue to offer students a challenge in STEM programs as well as long-term interest in furthering their studies in STEM programs, but the STEM programs at the middle and high school levels need to actively work together to find a sustainable educational model that incorporates video games into their curriculum to create competitive students for science and technology fields.