01/24/2016  |  Catherine Croft Swanwick, Ph.D.

Pencils scratch on yet another worksheet as some students gaze with boredom out the window. Steps of the cell cycle are jotted down and diagrams are sketched, all to be memorized for the test next week and then to be quickly forgotten. Does this sound like a science classroom that you know? Maybe one that you took in high school or even one down the hall from you? 

Far too many classrooms adopt this learning style. In crowded public schools it may have even emerged as a classroom management technique, an effective way of keeping a room of more than 25 students quiet and well behaved for a lengthy period of time. However, what cost does this have on long-term retention? Is there a better way to engage our students without burning out teachers?

Combatting the STEM Crisis

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is a huge buzzword right now. In 2010 the Obama administration declared STEM education to be a national priority, noting the shortage of students interested in pursuing careers in these fields. Many students turn away from these subjects because they seem too complicated. Long flowcharts, technical jargon, and endless lists can be overwhelming and are difficult ways to excite students about concepts. Hands-on inquiry based methods are increasingly being implemented in classrooms across the nation to combat this problem. In addition to such welcome project-based learning, a growing population of teachers has turned to gamification.

“Serious games” comprise a rapidly growing field in education. The serious game industry tripled in size over the past decade. Most of these games involve digital versions, with an international market estimated at $1.8 billion. Although the tabletop game market is currently dwarfed by this, tabletop games are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with 2015 often referred to as the “Year of the Board Game.” Both are equally effective as learning tools, with each type of media offering certain advantages. For instance, digital games can include innovative features such as 3-D representations and learning assessment tools. On the other hand, tabletop games provide more social interaction in a physical environment, encouraging collaborative learning. Notably, many tabletop games now have digital counterparts, allowing players to choose their desired experience. 

Making STEM “Friendlier”

The attraction of the serious game medium for STEM subjects is that it provides a fun, engaging way for the students to internalize complex ideas. The cell cycle may be reduced to acronyms and memorization for most students, but for those who play a strategic game where they utilize their knowledge of cell cycle event sequences and vocabulary to dominate other players, it becomes an environment where they are allowed to immerse themselves in a microscopic biological world. 

Serious games are the educational equivalent of sneaking vegetables into your children’s food. To be most effective, the core of the educational serious game needs to incorporate the STEM learning objectives into the game mechanism. They are not simply trivia games that quiz students with common test questions and reward them for correct answers. Players should internalize the STEM concepts as part of the game play. For instance, in my company’s game “Cycles,” students need to assemble steps of 13 different biological cycles, and once they have collected a cycle they gain a power, which relates to that cycle’s function — i.e., butterfly equals power of metamorphosis, which allow players to exchange a card. Ideally, during the game, players will excitedly challenge each other about the sequence of events in a life cycle, stealing missing steps from each other and adopting related powers. No prior STEM knowledge is needed. Students indirectly learn as they play.

Another key element of the serious game is that it must be fun. To truly engage the students, it needs to have addictive elements that make them want to replay the game. Learning and fun are not opposites, so this does not necessarily pose a problem. However, too many learning games sacrifice the emphasis on fun, which can be a fatal mistake for an educational tool. Elements that enhance the game experience can be humor, strategy, deception, unpredictability and role-playing. Also, it should possess the capability of producing multiple different outcomes. The more often students want to play the game, the more they are exposed to learning concepts and the greater chance of long-term retention.

STEM Games for All Ages

Whereas serious games can easily be used for complex STEM topics at the high school level, they can be just as effective for younger children. In fact, preschool may be an ideal place to start, since play is such an important component of early childhood education.  Also, at this age, educational goals for children include taking turns, social skills, and fine motor coordination, all of which are readily offered by tabletop games. Parents and teachers already play simple board games with their preschoolers in order for them to learn these very skills. Many of these games teach early concepts such as colors, numbers or letters. They could just as easily be constructed around STEM concepts, yet very few of these products exist in the preschool market.

Preschool children are naturally drawn to STEM subjects, functioning as little scientists exploring the world around them. If some of the simpler board games targeted at this age incorporated a STEM theme, it could form the foundation for STEM education throughout grades K-12. For example, introducing young children to concepts such as atoms would encourage them to perceive them as building blocks of the universe. This would lead to a better understanding of molecules and subsequently how they interact with each other in the world. Similar chains of learning could be constructed for biology or computer programming.

Moreover, targeting STEM games for preschoolers promotes a layered learning environment for families. Many parents are bored with existing simple children’s board games such as “Candyland.” However, preschool games that incorporate STEM concepts could engage the whole family. Parents could learn together with their children, keeping their mind active while enjoying family bonding. As mentioned above, serious games ideally infuse indirect learning, so parents don’t need prior STEM knowledge. Even if STEM subjects were not their strong suit in school, they don’t have to be afraid of not looking smart in front of their children. It can be a fun educational experience for everyone around the table. 

Making STEM Relevant

I almost missed my career as a scientist because of the way that STEM is commonly taught in K-12. I hated science when growing up. I, too, was a victim of memorization and worksheets and had no sense of what scientists actually did. Luckily a series of fortunate incidents during college led me to my path as a neurobiologist. I fear that many other young people are not as lucky, never realizing their potential in a STEM career. Innovative educational tools such as serious games could play a key role in engaging students with STEM. Hopefully more teachers and administrators will embrace this growing movement, utilizing STEM games in their own classrooms. Learning, more than anything, should be fun.                

Catherine Croft Swanwick earned her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Virginia after graduating with her B.S. in Biology from Duke University. She then performed eight years of neuroscience research, with five years at the National Institutes of Health and three years at MindSpec. Her research focused on the formation of synapses and their role in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. Throughout her scientific career she actively participated in science outreach and developed a passion for transforming STEM education. Dr. Swanwick transitioned to a career in teaching and in 2015 she co-founded her own educational game company, Catlilli Games. 
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