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21st Century Education: Everyone’s Game for Learning


Last week, NASA released a free educational game on Steam. Co-developed by “serious-games” experts, Army Game Studios and Virtual Heroes, Moonbase Alpha is the first of what NASA hopes will be a series of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) oriented games from Learning Technologies, NASA’s “educational-technology incubator”.  In an interview with Ars Technica, Daniel Laughlin, program manager of Learning Technologies explained, “It started as an effort to prove we could create a commercial quality game using NASA content that is fun.”  Games Daily rated the short, 20 minute game “pretty cool”.

But what’s really cool is that the concept of gaming as a serious educational tool has gained so much momentum in the last few years.  No less than the Federation of American Scientists is getting into the educational game, so to speak, with a couple of interactive games that it hopes will inspire potential young scientists. After all, who wouldn’t want to go into medicine after fighting off bacterial warriors in “Immune Attack”?

Last fall, Florida Virtual School, one of the nation’s foremost online public schools, added “Conspiracy Code,” thought to be the first – and apparently still the only — online game-based, credit-bearing high school course in the U.S., to its course offerings.   240 students enrolled in the class immediately and reviews have been positive. Developed by 360Ed, whose mission is “Getting students as strongly interested in educational material as they are in the best games and movies,” the goal of Conspiracy code is for students to develop an understanding of American History as they control the main characters, Eddie and Libby, in an espionage-themed adventure.  Progressing to higher levels is possible only through “mission assessments,” each of which elicits a higher-order analysis of the curriculum material.

According to Florida Virtual School, the game was developed in accordance with the Caine Learning Institute’s “12 principles of brain-based learning”, which are pretty basic things like “all learning is physiological”, “the search for meaning is innate” and “learning is developmental”.  But the long and the short of it is that it’s always more engaging to learn when learning is, well, more engaging.  Futurist, and big thinker, Elliot Masie, of the Learning Consortium, which studies the evolution of learning strategies, believes gaming succeeds academically because it allows learners to “fail to success“.  As much as we all hate to admit it, we learn the most from our failures.  Gaming allows us to test our limits, and to fail, in a safe environment.  Additionally, Masie and others point out that gaming increases intellectual “muscle memory”, and also helps us learn through the competitive process.  

Or as renowned evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, creator of the online reference, the Encyclopedia of Life, told NPR earlier this year, gaming allows us to learn in exactly the same way we evolved to learn – by doing.  Now that’s a concept worth taking to the next level.

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