By Mitchell Krugel
Photos by Greg Pallante
Liam, a fourth grader at Milltown School in Bridgewater, has been mind-crafting a video game as part of a class combining media and technology specials. Using Black Rocket Gaming’s Platformer program, Liam’s game challenges to collect players and build an NFL team. Level 1 requires finding New York Giants. Points are awarded for each player collected. The top level features building Liam’s favorite team, the Seattle Seahawks.
“I’m really into video games, so it’s really cool for me to be able to do coding and build my own game,” Liam explains. “And I can’t wait to go home and teach it to my little brothers.”
At Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School, Tyler is finding elements to create a genetic experiment for his seventh-grade science class. “I’m building this game and having fun while learning,” Tyler says. “This is my game. I built another one, a matching game about food processing. You shoot at the answers and get points for hitting the right ones.”
Liam and Tyler are part of hundreds, even thousands of students throughout New Jersey realizing the virtues of game-based learning. The convergence of technology, engaging even the students in the “back row,” facilitating the needs of differentiated learning styles, building 21st-century classroom skill sets, meeting the “Next Generation Science Standards,” promoting oh-so needed confidence in this assessment-consumed era and inspiring kids to learn in their own element has led game-based learning and game-based teaching in the form of video game design to become one of the most powerful tools teachers can use in the 21st-century classroom.
“Gaming is something we do as adults all the time. It’s why we choose our credit cards, to get the miles. We pay our bills online. It’s how we function as a society so why is that not part of our educational design?” asserts Deana Baumert, a seventh-grade teacher at Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School who also trains educators in the use of game-based learning for Black Rocket of Freehold. “The process of designing a game is higher-level thinking. It’s everything the Common Core is driving us toward.”
At the 2015 NJEA Conference in Atlantic City, the High Tech Hall featured two full days of presentations chronicling using video game design to impact ELA standards, science standards, student engagement, instructional design and SGOs. Later this month, Baumert will be presenting at the Florida Education Technology Conference, the second-largest expo of its kind, where the entire first day will be devoted to gaming in the classroom.
The opportunity is for teachers to engage students on their turf, in their element. Gamers make up more than 90 percent of the student population, more than jocks, mathletes and perhaps all other student groups combined.
“Video games are as close to being universal appeal to this age group as possible,” reasons Richard Ginn, a former NJ Teacher of the Year at High Technology High School in Lincroft and now president of Black Rocket. “Teachers who have used game-based learning have told us kids who weren’t excited about learning were excited for the first time. Instead of teachers having to tell the class, ‘Today, we’re going to study polynomials,’ they can say, ‘Today, we’re going to make video games about polynomials.’ In their head, it’s a video game they are talking about, but it’s the Core Content they are studying.”
When Ginn started with Black Rocket eight years ago, he was inspired by the level of engagement from kids in enrichment programs, the after-school and summer courses and activities. What if there was some way to create the same spark in the core content classroom? How many teachers could benefit from a mechanism to spark the kids, not necessarily the ones in the front row paying attention, “but the ones in the back row half-asleep?” Ginn asked.
Game-based learning seems to be a natural conduit for engagement in the classroom. In the digital age, when kids spend so much time powering up on devices, why ask them to power down when they come into the classroom?
Consequently, “gamification” – which the Oxford Dictionary defines as, “adding game-like principles to encourage participation” – fills classrooms with an Angry Birds or Madden or Fallout or Minecraft type mojo.
“Education has to change, and we have to be on top of it,” submits Marin Vitali, the Library Media Specialist at Milltown School in Bridgewater which has been deploying Black Rocket with its elementary students that past two years. “Teaching a program to build video games might be scary at first, but then you see how much the kids love it, and you see its practical applications and how it meets the new science standards.”
Certainly gamification is not a new teaching concept. Bill Zengel, an award-winning writer and producer who had won MTV’s Music Video of the Year honors, founded Black Rocket in 2001 with his daughter Sarah. Their journey to help students become 21st century learners, thinkers and doers began shortly thereafter.
When Ginn came on board full-time in 2007, he initiated professional development for teachers to bring game-based learning’s 21st-century ideas to teaching math, science, language arts and social studies. Black Rocket now offers a rapidly growing STEM curriculum targeted at Common Core standards that Baumert is helping to develop with teachers.
Ginn recounts how JoAnn DeVito, a teacher at Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School, was a year or two away from retirement when she first witnessed the power of game-based learning. He saw that as inspiration to get more than the one-percenters – the educators who are not afraid to try new things – into gaming.
“What all of us educators struggle with is how to get children excited about content,” Ginn adds. “But the amount of time on task is what matters. The amount of time children spend on content, processing it and re-teaching it, those are the universal educational principles. At the core of that is engagement, and virtually every teacher we talk to tells us that the kids get a much deeper understanding by processing the information and presenting to others through a video game.”
You don’t need to be a media specialist, a technology teacher or a science teacher to gamify. Baumert is a special educator whose concentration has been mainly language arts. But in her travels of teaching every subject but math in mainstream and modified classrooms, she has realized an opportunity to use game-based learning in every class, every day,
It comes down to this:
“Learning has become so interactive that the kids don’t want to listen to me because they would much rather be on the computer,” relates Dianne Kolavitch, the technology teacher at Milltown. “It’s the textbook of the future.”
Are you game?
When Baumert presented at the NJEA Conference, she started with her own game she calls, “Can we make a video game out of that?” She said a teacher of high school vocational photography accepted the challenge. Without much hesitation, Baumert offered:
“Couldn’t you have your students take their own images and use them to design a video game?”
Score a point for video game-based learning.
Patti Hilliard, a seventh-grade science teacher at Matawan/Aberdeen Middle School, also believes a video game can be made out of anything if teachers had enough time. She recently had students building right-or-wrong and matching video games to follow up on a test about genetics.
So if you can build a video game, using genetics, couldn’t you have your students build a video game about anything?
Chances are, teachers will hear the response that Hilliard often gets from students that come into the gaming arena.
“They ask if they can work on it at home,” Hilliard reports. “What else can you do in the classroom where they want to work on it at home? We all know giving homework can be painful because they don’t want to do homework. I don’t blame them. When you go home, you want to relax. But how do you relax? You go on the computer. So it’s one more way of adding reinforcement of concepts. They think they are playing. And we know they are learning.”
Baumert remembers one of the first applications involved eight graders building a video game to introduce incoming sixth graders to their new middle school: places and faces they needed to know; school personnel who would be helpful; etc. Think of a dynamic in which fourth graders, for example, could build a video game about the “long A” sound and teach it to first graders along the lines of reading buddies? How would that impact student engagement – for both the fourth- and first-graders?
Another high-powered application could replace education’s biggest bugaboo: the end-of-the-unit test. At Milltown School, Vitali saw the power of this when second-graders completed a unit on colonial times.
“We divided the kids into groups to research different aspects of colonial life: toys, clothing, school and more,” she explained. “We compared to how it was different from today, and the culminating project was a Black Rocket game we had them create.”
Gamification can also be a cool venue for students to showcase their work. Baumert’s brother is an engineer who custom builds video gaming cabinets in his spare time. There is one currently in the works for Milltown that will be placed in the cafeteria where kids can play at lunchtime.
Milltown Principal Matt Lembo, who brought Black Rocket to his school after seeing it at a NJ Science Convention workshop, can envision students challenging him to play their games. Lembo was attracted by the problem-solving aspect of game-based learning, the hands-on, experiential, visual learning allowing students to come up with multiple solutions. And he also cites the sounds coming from classroom where game-based learning is happening as a way to ascertain the value of the application.
“It sounds like the playground, like laughter, like conflict as kids muscle their way through,” he describes. “It’s an environment they need to be in if we are to stay on the bleeding edge of things.”
For love of the games
But you don’t want to go over the edge, which is where this could head when trying to explain to parents that you’re asking their children to spend more time gaming. Tell them, however, that game-based learning is way to tap into the time they are already spending.
Ginn references a study that indicates between third grade and the end of high school, students spend approximately 10,000 hours in class in instruction. And during the same time period, they spend approximately 10,000 hours outside of school playing video games.
“If we could tap into that second 10,000 hours, we would have another whole learning track in which kids could develop and grow more skills,” Ginn reasons.
The experience writing code that Black Rocket offers and working with technology was enough for Lembo to advocate full deployment at Milltown School for this year, one year ahead of the deadline to adopt next generation science standards.
“The evidence of the type of learning children need to be doing – thinking deeply, using technology for everyday function, problem-solving, working collaboratively with their classmates – was abundantly evident,” he says. “The validation has come in the way the kids are motivated and interactive through game-based learning.”
The cost for Black Rocket can be less than half of what a teacher typically spends out of pocket on supplies and other materials during the school year to bring positive engagement and experiences to the classroom. And the payoff to invest can be priceless.
Baumert advocates to teachers attending her presentations that game-building can become a learning skill as valuable as reading or writing. What better way to learn than to build a video game then teach it to another student?
Add in confidence and perseverance gained from building the game and playing it until you can get to the top level, and, well…priceless.
“The student engagement is intrinsic,” Baumert emphasizes. “And the whole time they are building their game and thinking about their game, they are building a deeper sense of mastery of that content because they are thinking about it in a completely different way. It’s kind of cool. Really cool.”