Teachers, Students: Design Your Own STEM Learning Game

February 13, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Literacy, Students, Technology Integration

It’s official: the 2013 STEM Video Game Challenge is now accepting student submissions! It’s a nationwide game design competition for middle and high school students inspired by President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign. The greater purpose of the competition is to get youth interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, but to also tap into students’ often natural passion for playing and designing video games.

Since its inception in 2010, the contest has been jointly presented by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and game-based learning product publisher E-Line Media. Each year, students are eligible to win prizes for both themselves and their school. This year’s winners will receive an AMD-powered laptop with game design software and an award of $2000 per entry for the students’ school (or nonprofit organization of their choice).

According to the STEM Challenge website, contest submissions should emphasize how technology and engineering can promote learning. Ideally, each submission could potentially be used in a classroom. And if you’re still questioning how video games can be merged into your curriculum, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center has provided a new series of video case studies featuring teachers using digital games effectively in their classrooms.

One of the videos focuses on middle-school technology instructor Steve Isaacs, who uses the Gamestar Mechanic curriculum to help his students develop their own games in class. “Games are very motivating,” said Isaacs. “There’s no question that kids are playing games and love games, so my thought was I’d like to see kids developing their own games.”

In Isaacs’s classroom, students start out by creating a storyline and a "game design document," an outline that encourages students to think through the games's target audience, storyline, platform and more. He then has students play and review each other’s games based on a rubric, and allows them to adjust their designs accordingly. The goal is for each student to have designed and created a fully functional game with multiple levels that increase in difficulty. “I want to teach the basics, but my goal is always for my students to know more than I do by the end,” said Isaacs. “I want to teach them how to learn.”

Fourth-grade teacher Lisa Parisi also uses games, from BrainPOP and elsewhere online, to aid the learning process. “We do a lot of test prep, where the children have to explain all of their answers in math and explain all their thinking in reading,” said Parisi. “Games can show me a little window into their thinking.”

In the case study, Parisi explains the benefits of using games in her classroom, and how she often has to educate parents on why gaming is important. “I’ve been using games since I first started teaching, and so, when we got computers, we just naturally moved from board games to computer games,” she said. “I think there are so many positives to gaming in the classroom. Digital games go perfectly with my project-based learning curriculum.”

In addition to the case study videos, the STEM Video Challenge website has a number of other resources, including a new mentor resource kit. The kit includes an introductory presentation [PDF] that outlines this year’s challenge information, a “game design 101” section for first-timers, and links to several exercises you can work through with your students. The kit also includes a Tool and Resource Guide [PDF], activity plans, and information on game design workshops, which educators can host using these tools.

All games must be submitted in one of three formats: written video game design document outlining key features of the game, a playable game made using a free platform (Game Maker, Scratch, Kodu, or Gamestar Mechanic), or a playable prototype using any open platform for game making without purchasing a subscription to the platform. Open platforms include programs like Game Salad, RPG Maker, and Flash.

Submissions can also include a game design document that addresses categories integral to the game’s design, including overall vision for the game, target audience, and characters and storyline. You can read more about game design documents and their qualifications on the STEM Video Challenge site, or check out examples they have provided.

Submission forms are available online, and each submission should focus on one of the core topics: math, health, literacy, or community. Submissions will be grouped by the platform used to design the game. Submitters in the open-platform categories can compete as individuals or as a team. For more information on submission categories, check out the rules.

Students have until April 14, 2013 to enter their submissions. If you have additional questions, you can ask the STEM Challenge team directly. You can also subscribe to updates and follow the challenge on Twitter @STEMChallenge