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Curriculum and Instruction News

Gamer-Teacher collaboration yields nine middle school science games

August 17, 2016
by David Tenenbaum, University Communications

Nine educational video games developed in an unusual collaboration between middle school science teachers and expert game developers have been released nationally by Field Day lab, a project of UW-Madison's Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.

The games cover earthquakes, the carbon cycle and the water cycle, among other topics chosen by the teachers during a January workshop on campus.

"The main thing we learned was that this collaboration with teachers was even possible," says David Gagnon, director of Field Day and an alumnus of UW-Madison’s School of Education. "There are so many barriers in the world of educational games. There is really great theory and fantastic scholarship out of UW-Madison and elsewhere, but in general, the adoption in schools is a bit lackluster, and games don't yet fit as well as they deserve to."

Hot Air Balloon game
A game based on hot air balloons teaches basic principles
on the physics of gases.
With teachers present at the creation, he says, "We were able to build games that were designed, first and foremost, from the teacher perspective, and we came out with products that will be easier to integrate into middle schools.

"Middle schools are a decisive moment in identity formation of youth," Gagnon says, since games blend learning through exploration with learning by doing. Gamers who "fail in playful ways" can be encouraged to try again, he adds.

Instead of focusing on facts, the games focus on systems, which are the bedrock of science, Gagnon says. "Games help respond to a tension that exists in education, to teach a lot of content without a lot of depth."

Gagnon earned his master's degree from UW-Madison's No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction in 2010.

In the next school year, Field Day will enter the realm of history, as Field Day is recruiting a new crop of 18 teachers.

"We plan to have kids develop history games," Gagnon says. "Instead of a research essay as the final project, they will make a researched game‚Äč. We think this will deepen their understanding of history."

David Gagnon
UW-Madison alumnus David Gagnon directs Field Day.
Since the January workshop that brought seven science teachers from around Wisconsin to the Field Day lab, "the teachers have been working with us to improve the games and test each version with their kids," Gagnon says. "We need to be sure they are feasible to use in school, and that they are effective teaching tools. Having teachers as co-designers gave us a window into their experience, and we benefitted from wisdom that they could not necessarily verbalize."

The games are being formally introduced at the annual conference of the Games+Learning+Society program at UW-Madison, which was started by noted video-game educators and School of Education faculty members Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuhler.

Although they recently announced their impending departure to the University of California, Irvine, Gagnon, who studied under Squire, says, “When Kurt and Constance came, educational games were not an accepted thing. After years of scholarship and data, they succeeded in creating a community of scholars, designers, policy makers, and spinoffs like Filament Games that acknowledge the value of games. There is enough infrastructure in place that while their departure is a catastrophe, the impact of their work will remain.”

Games are a process of learning from trial and error, Gagnon says. In science, that’s called experimentation. “If kids can see that science is actually about experimentation, not about memorizing facts, this will increase the number of good scientists a generation later,” Gagnon says.

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