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Games add a new element of fun to learning

Kristen B. Morales

October 19, 2015

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Don't be fooled by the plain, windowless office door off the second-floor hallway of Aderhold Hall. Behind it, two animators are designing a radical new kind of educational technology, with the potential to completely change how kids learn about science.

The office is home to Alex Turbyfield and David Nix, who are digital animators in the College of Education working on a National Institutes of Health-funded project to teach third-graders about diabetes and other health issues associated with obesity using cute animated cats. Playing the role of the veterinarian, kids navigate their way through the game to diagnose the cats' ailments, all while learning important scientific concepts.

The project, led by Georgia Hodges, an assistant research scientist in the College's Department of Mathematics and Science Education, is a spinoff of an earlier National Science Foundation-funded initiative to create educational games for middle- and high school students. So far, Hodges' studies have shown that the students who use the games are not only learning scientific methods and reasoning, but they are also scoring better on tests of the material thanks to the games' real-world scenarios.

Until recently, educational games were designed starting from a lesson plan. But kids could see through this smokescreen, says Tom Robertson, and the public soured on the concept.

Robertson is CEO and co-founder of Cogent Education, a College of Education-affiliated company created from a 2011 NIH grant as well as state economic development seed money, and he is aiming to change that mind-set. After consulting with researchers at UGA's New Media Institute, Robertson and his team developed a new kind of educational game—one based on commercial gaming technology, but with a backbone derived from the scientific method.

The science, they argued, could be part of the storyline.

"If a game is designed correctly, and has science at the heart of it, you can teach very complex processes at a much earlier level—if it's designed and supported correctly," says Robertson. "If you make a good game based on the science, then you've got people playing with science."

With this new structure, the team began creating a suite of games teaching concepts such as osmosis and how our brain makes connections. But what drives the product development, says Robertson, is the research—in creating the concept behind the game, how it's developed, and how it's used in the classroom.

"We get data back in terms of how to make the software better—where students are learning and where they are struggling—and that allows us to inform product development through rigorous research," says Robertson. "And it's also about interviewing the teacher. This will tell us what to make, and they are helping us refine it as we go through. ... If we aren't helping the teachers through research, then we shouldn't exist."

There are two basic varieties of games being developed.

The first, created by Cogent, involves characters in their own world, and science concepts are built into the structure of the game. For example, in "Nurbits," the player has to make connections across a grid using the correct combination of puzzle-like pieces; when connected correctly, the robot band in your basement comes to life to make music. What you, as the player, don't realize is that the connections mimic types of neurons in your brain, and you've learned the ways they connect.

The second, something both Cogent and the College of Education team are creating, is based on real-life case studies. In Cogent's game, now in testing with ninth-graders, students move through the scientific process of discovery and trial-and-error before they come to a solution.

"I feel like that's one of our strong ties with Cogent—they've found a working model, and we've branched off of that, where we've taken their model and now we're exploring that in an elementary setting," says Turbyfield.

Nix adds that earlier research done by Cogent is also one of the reasons their project even exists. As it turns out, high school students simply didn't have the knowledge of the scientific method, and Hodges realized creating a similar product for a younger grade level could help. "So by the time they get to high school, it's a lot easier for them to grasp the concepts," he says.

In creating the next generation of educational games, it's about finding that balance between entertainment and education that keeps students engaged throughout the process. It also involves buy-in from teachers, who may be skeptical of introducing a computer game into the curriculum. And for Nix and Turbyfield, the content also has to include literacy and mathematics in order to satisfy elementary curriculum requirements.

"The overarching goal is that we want our students showing increased ability to apply critical thinking," says Robertson. Cogent's current research includes looking at the level of learning taking place within a game.

"With Nurbits, if you can complete a level of this game, what confidence do I have that you know the concept?" he says. "Can you make a really good game that kids will like, and you know that when they complete a level, the kids will know it?"