ED Games Expo hosts games for learning
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By Dana Tofig, Communications Director, IES

It was an event that had the feel of an arcade, but the heart of a schoolhouse.

The Ed Games Expo on Wednesday, December 9, 2015, hosted 45 developers who are building games for learning that are designed to engage students across a variety of topics and subject matters. One-third of the games on display at the Expo are supported by the Institute of Education Sciences Small Business Innovation Research (ED/IES SBIR) program, which provides awards to companies to improve the use of technology in education.

Photo by Lauren Kleissas

(Photo by Lauren Kleissas)

"Games are inherently engaging," said Brooke Morrill, an educational researcher at Schell Games. "A student may or may not be interested in a topic matter, but it doesn't matter. They are engaged in the game."

Schell Games was demonstrating a prototype of "Happy Atoms," a game that combines hand-on resources with technology to create an interactive learning experience. Users can use create atom models with balls and sticks; similar to the way it’s been done in Chemistry classes for generations. But using an app equipped with vision recognition software, users can scan the model they've built to see what they've created or if they've made any mistakes. The app then connects to curriculum-aligned content about the molecule and how it is used in the real world.

Happy Atoms (pictured below) was a long-time pet project of the company's CEO, Jesse Schell, who is a vanguard in the educational gaming industry. However, the company didn't have funding to put a full-time team on the game's development. In 2014, Schell received a Phase I funding from ED/IES SBIR to develop a prototype and, earlier this year, received a Phase II award to further develop and evaluate Happy Atoms.

"We wouldn't be where we are without our IES funding," Morrill said.

A few tables away, the Attainment Company was demonstrating ED/IES SBIR-supported technology that is designed to build the reading, comprehension, and writing skills of special education students. For instance, Access: Language Arts is an app and software designed to allow middle school students with intellectual disabilities to read adapted versions of the books their peers are reading (like The Outsiders and the Diary of Anne Frank) while building their writing skills and even engaging in research.

 

"We know many students, especially those with autism, are motivated by technology because of the consistency it provides," said Pamela J. Mims, an assistant professor of special education at East Tennessee State University, who is working with Attainment on Access: Language Arts.  "We collected a lot of data on this and we see a lot of engagement."

Engagement is a big part of what drove John Krajewski, of Strange Loop Games, to develop ECO, another game that has received Phase I and II funding through ED/IES SBIR. Krajewski calls ECO a “global survival game,” in which students work together to build and maintain a virtual world for 30 days.

“You are trying to build up enough technology for your society, but in the process you can pollute and damage this world to the point it could die on its own,” Krajewski said. “You have to make decisions as a group about what has to be done in this world.”

In order to preserve the world, players have to pass laws that will protect resources while allowing society to continue to develop. For example, students might decide to limit the number of trees that can be cut down each day. Then, they can use graphs and data to see the impact of their laws and the health of their world. ECO not only builds an understanding about ecology and environmental science, but it builds real-world skills, like collaboration, communication, and scientific conversation and debate.

Krajewski said the funding from ED/IES SBIR not only allowed the project to be developed, but was a vote of confidence that allows ECO to be accepted in the field.

“IES has given us total runway to make this thing happen, which is awesome,” he said.

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