STEM Game Designers Go for the Gold
Jul 19, 2012 Comment
The National STEM Video Game
Challenge rewards innovations in game-based learning.
At The Atlantic's Technologies in Education Forum on May 23, Tom Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, introduced the winners of the 2012 National STEM Video Game Challenge.
The 2012 challenge awarded prizes to game designers in four categories: middle-school students, high-school students, college students and educators. At each level, contestants could enter the challenge individually or in teams of up to four members. The goal: design an educational video game aimed at children, ranging from pre-K to grade 12, that teaches STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts and fosters an interest in STEM subjects.
This was the second round of this national competition. It was launched in 2010 to align with President Obama's Educate to Innovate campaign, which aims to inspire students to excel in math and science. The challenge is implemented by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, along with E-Line Media, with the support of an impressive and growing group of sponsors and outreach partners.
Middle-school and high-school winners each received a new laptop computer with game design and educational software, along with $2,000 for each winning entry to go to the students' schools or a nonprofit of their choice. The stakes were higher for collegiate and educator entries, with winners receiving seed money for further development and distribution of their games, along with research support from the Cooney Center and industry experts.
There are lots of things to like about this challenge. First, it is a true cross-sector effort, with government, nonprofits and corporate leaders working together to encourage and celebrate STEM education and innovation in game-based learning.
Second, the challenge doesn't cost a lot of money. Obviously, we need to invest real dollars in STEM education. In fact, just this week the White House announced plans to develop a STEM Master Teacher Corps that will start with 50 teachers and grow to 10,000 teachers over four years. This is a laudable goal, but it also will require $1 billion in funding that is requested in the 2013 budget currently before Congress. By contrast, the STEM Video Game Challenge leverages financial support and expertise from across sectors and is relatively inexpensive.
Third, the challenge rewards kids and teens for developing educational games. Although the 18-and-up prizes are bigger and better, the excitement of winning a national contest and a new computer, as well as being recognized by the President (winners of the first round were invited to the White House Science Fair in February) is pretty good stuff.
However, perhaps in future rounds of the challenge, a few things might get even better. Why not reward the kids with some money, too, in addition to the funds for their school. Maybe this could take the form of funds for a college scholarship. Or how about sending the winning youth (along with a parent or two) to one of the major game developers conferences so they can mingle with professionals?
Also, while the contest did get some national media attention here and there, the real way to maximize the "cool" factor of STEM video games would be to get the finalists on TV in a big way (see, old media does have its moments). Think reality TV with an educational twist. Who's going to win this year? Which team are you rooting for? What about last year's winners - where are they now? Picture the hard-to-resist pre-teen drama of the National Spelling Bee, but on STEM-game steroids. Or imagine a Project Runway set-up, with contestants wielding pixels instead of pinking shears and Bill Nye filling Tim Gunn's shoes.
Beyond exploring ways to make more Americans aware of this challenge by giving it some pop-culture exposure, it would be great to see government, schools, nonprofits and corporations come together to create similar competitions. For instance, more and more college classrooms are using game-based learning, and national recognition and support for innovative new games aimed at postsecondary students would be a terrific idea.
Furthermore, STEM is an important piece of the educational puzzle at every level, but game-based learning isn't limited to math and science. Video games are now used to teach all sorts of subjects. How about some prizes and recognition for educational games in the social sciences and humanities?
In addition to encouraging the development of new games, national competitions could also recognize educators who are adapting commercial games in innovative ways. One such educator is Joel Levin, who was a panelist at the Technologies in Education Forum. Levin is co-owner of TeacherGamingLLC, which created MinecraftEdu, the official version of Minecraft designed for teachers and students.
Game-based learning is serious business. So let's have some fun rewarding game designers of every age who find exciting, effective ways to combine play and pedagogy.