Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

Technology for a better world.

Game Programming Competition & Making Learning Fun May 20, 2008

Filed under: education,energy,OGPC,technology — pdxbob @ 5:11 am

As a former high-school teacher and parent of two children, I have always had an interest in seeing how education can be made to be fun. I’ve seen a lot of different styles and even experimented with some of my own unique approaches, but still the statistics ranking students in the United States indicate that there are many kids falling through the cracks. I don’t need to bore you with those numbers. Instead I want to reflect on a great experience I had this weekend as a judge of the Oregon Game Project Challenge where about twenty teams of high school students presented and demonstrated the computer game they created over the last month or two. For specifics on the competition and the top grand prize winner, see fellow judge (and fellow Corillian-CheckFree-Fiserv-ian) Stuart’s post here.

What most intrigued me about the experience were two things: 1) the students showed a lot of positive team-building skills as they regularly commended each other’s work, accepted a degree of specialization and were proud of their contribution, and in some cases exhibited a synchronicity in their story-telling presentation to the judges. The second thing that intrigued me was that the competition had a theme: energy, which each team was to incorporate in some way into their game. Since I was judging in the category of Game R&D, it was important to me to see how the students obtained information on energy and how they applied it in the game. Just having a theme (that was something other than killing all of the zombies or another worn-out game idea) gave team participants who were not the jedi programmers on the team a chance to apply themselves to research and to creatively incorporate their ideas into the game design.  It was so cool to hear stories about “ethical decisions” that a player had to make in a game, and about “monitoring the pollution level” as different actions were taken in a game.

This was the first programming game competition put on by TechStart and I am looking forward to the second OGPC next year. If you know high-school students who might be interested in this type of challenge, or even teachers who could share the idea with their students, please contact TechStart.

A week or two ago I picked up a book at Powell’s Technical entitled How Computer Games Help Children Learn by David Williamson Shaffer, an Associate Professor of Learning Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I just started reading it yesterday and I am very impressed with his approach. The book is intended to show how we can use game technology to teach children and young adults how to think as if they are in the real world of work. That’s not exactly how the author put it but it comes close. This type of thinking is really close to what I envision as necessary in educational thinking. To give you an idea of what I think really works, I’m going to relate an experience I had as a “seminar” leader way back in 1976 when I led a seminar on the topic of Government & Business for the National Junior Achievement Conference held one week in the summer at Indiana University.

I had attended the conference as a student delegate two years earlier after I had graduated from high school, and returned as a counselor the previous summer. In 1976, I decided to lead a seminar and chose that Govt/Biz topic. All of the seminars that I had attended as a student had been really boring: the seminar leader presented slides or gave a talk with notes. There were questions and answers afterward. Sound familiar? My approach was radically different. I devised a simulated scenario where a company had the right, to a degree, to pollute a nearby river (this was the 70’s ok) and recent studies indicated that there were more environmental effects on the ecosystem than originally thought. The company also wanted to ramp up its production to meet a growing demand. After explaining the scenario to the students in a ten-minute lecture-style address, I walked them to a classroom where they were instructed to form teams of 6-8 to a table and discuss the open-ended questions that had been written on the blackboards (remember, it was the 70s). Ultimately, each team was expected to provide a resolution to the government – business conflict that had occurred.

This “game” as I like to think of it, had no single winning team, but the enthusiasm shown by the kids was at a high level. They loved having the ability to discuss amongst themselves these tough problems and to debate solutions. I facilitated, walking around answering questions mostly by pointing the discussion in a direction. This teaching approach is obviously more adaptable to social sciences and humanities than it is to the hard natural sciences but I’m confident that if the topic were the chemical analysis of the environment that we still could have had a roaring good time debating how to go about doing the research and completing a study (ok, yeah I was quite a nerd in hs).

There are a lot of ways to get students engaged in learning. I see another recent interest of mine converging on the motivational education plane. Within the past couple or few years we’ve seen an explosion of APIs (application programmer interfaces) to gazillions of databases of data or services on the web. ProgrammableWeb is a site that follows the evolution of the “programmable web.” In this article, it proudly states that there are over 3000 mashups in its online repository! Each mashup is an application that uses data from one or more web sites to present it or use it in a unique way. Thirty-nine percent of those, it reports, are mashups involving mapping such as Google Maps. On their “Mashups” tab, you can see what the “Mashup of the Day” is. Today it is one called “ResumeDroppr.” There is a popular mashup called “Follow Oil Money” whose description is

An interactive tool that tracks the flow of oil money in U.S. politics, displaying Federal contributions as maps and drillable tables.

Now, getting back to education. Imagine students creating mashups. There are tools for building them (Sprout comes immediately to mind) so teachers/facilitators/educators have a way to focus the less-tech-savvy students by directing them to easy-to-use tools. I’m personally excited about this as an instructional medium that I might even start working on something for teachers and students to use.

What are your thoughts about using games, mashups, other media, as teaching tools and environments?

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