Martha Davis visited Danvers, Massachusetts, a suburb north of Boston, to get student feedback on Ruby Realm, a science video game created by EDC. The work is funded with a $9.2 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
“When you think about a video game to teach science, you might envision a quiz game of some kind. Ours is very different. It’s a 20-level adventure game, featuring a bio-fueled robot named Biobot Bob. Players guide the biobot through a cave, finding light sources that provide energy for him to construct glucose molecules from water and carbon dioxide—the same process plants perform during photosynthesis. The kids’ motivation is to help Bob rescue his lost companions, but they are learning all along the way. The game incorporates abstract science concepts in a fun way.
The sixth-grade students we worked with at Holten Richmond Middle School—12 girls and 5 boys—met four times a week for a 45-minute science block. My EDC colleague Marian Pasquale and I took turns observing the science class for four weeks. John Hodsdon, the students’ science teacher, had just finished a unit on ecosystems and had introduced the role of plants as producers. The kids were ready to delve deeper into how plants make their food, so the teacher agreed to incorporate our photosynthesis game into his teaching.
Each student was given a Nintendo DS hand-held game console loaded with our game module. It was our job to observe how the teacher integrated use of the game into instruction and homework, and how he used it to reinforce key ideas. We recorded what kids took away from the game, and we were also on hand to troubleshoot logistics. For example, what’s it like to hand out 60 DS consoles in a middle school classroom? Do kids have trouble logging on? Do they understand how to play the game? Do the consoles get returned? Luckily, we had very few technological problems, and we were really impressed with the honesty and responsibility of these 11 year olds.
The game was a hit. How do we know? When sixth graders are happy, you can tell. Both boys and the girls were really enthusiastic and couldn’t wait to play this game. The teacher liked it a lot, too. He incorporated game play in some really interesting ways—such as creating a scavenger hunt activity for kids to find where in the game Biobot Bob makes certain materials. Parents loved it, too. Most parents like things that bridge what children are doing in school with what they’re doing at home—it builds motivation and interest.
My feeling is that soon we’re not going to have any choice but to use technology in the classroom. It’s the way kids are learning. It’s how they get information. There shouldn’t be the divide that exists now between the resources kids use to learn in school and the way they learn outside of school. Kids have become very fluent using new technologies to play, learn, do research, and communicate. With the new tablets, the iPads, and the sophisticated video games that are out now, there will be increasing use of these devices in the classroom.
Of course, just because you have a neat tool doesn’t mean you should use it. Our goal is to leverage the power of video games to support classroom learning, as a supplement to a unit, and to allow children to explore aspects of the content in new ways. One student reported, ‘The game is fun, the robot is cool, and you are learning, too. You get the idea in your head while you are playing.’ It was clear to us that the game is building their understanding in a different way.
You know, when I was a kid, our textbooks didn’t even have color illustrations—it was considered too expensive. But of course using color made the material much more engaging, and you could learn a lot more from a map, for example, when information was presented with a color picture. It’s a natural progression. These games allow us to simulate the science with interactive visuals in ways that a textbook, even with color, never could.”
Originally published on May 2, 2011