Computer science teacher Michael Penta has trouble pulling his students away from their computers for an outdoor break during his weeklong game programming summer workshop at the University of Massachusetts—Lowell.
"I have a rule—Monday through Thursday, they have to go outside," he says. "But Friday, a majority of them are so focused on finishing their game that they stay in to work on it."
The UMass program is one of the university's Design Camps, which allow middle and high school students to create and program robots, build circuits, and complete other projects. The camps cost $480 for a weeklong session and include all materials. More than 30 percent of students who attend use full or partial scholarships to cover costs. Scholarships are offered by sponsors such as 3M Touch Systems, Comcast, Goodrich, and Tyco Electronics.
In just a week, high school students go from knowing nothing about programming to creating their own games using software called Gamemaker, an object-oriented design program with a graphical interface that allows students of all skill levels to begin building games. More advanced students can write their own lines of code to make more sophisticated games.
Penta says his students readily tackle advanced mathematical and problem-solving concepts because they are motivated to impress classmates with their finished games. "The best reward for students is to have other kids in the class going, 'Wow, this game is awesome,'" he says.
Penta and Douglas Prime, director of the university's Future Engineers Center, call it "just-in-time teaching." Students are not taught abstract concepts that they'll have to recall weeks later; new material and its real-world application are introduced at the same time, Prime says.
"We introduce students to the key mathematical ideas that they will need to use to accomplish their game design goals, and we do it just when they are ready to use it," Prime says.
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UMass isn't the only place using game design to engage students. Other groups around the country are using game design to motivate students to learn complex science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts.
Computer chip manufacturer Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) funds 10 after-school game design programs at Boys and Girls Clubs around the country, and recently sponsored a similar program in the United Arab Emirates.
"We know from research that playing games provides some STEM skills, but when [students] get involved with creating games, those skills go up exponentially," says Allyson Peerman, president of the AMD Foundation, the company's philanthropic organization.
Students participating in AMD's programs are encouraged to design games with a social element—examining recycling, for example, or climate change. Colleen Macklin, an associate professor with Parsons, The New School for Design and a teacher at AMD's program in the United Arab Emirates, says students learn more than just programming while creating these socially conscious games.
"The idea of the curriculum is to figure out how and why one would, [for instance], recycle, then have them create a game that replicates a system of recycling," she says. "It's about learning something through the lens of making a game about it. It's more research than a book report; students have to recreate that whole system."
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Peerman, of AMD, calls this "stealth learning." Students excitedly learn about subjects they might otherwise be disinterested in because they want to create a fun game.
UMass—Lowell's Prime says workshops like the university's Design Camp are just as good, if not better, at teaching students complex science than traditional high school courses—but he adds that an emphasis on standardized tests make scaling his program up unrealistic. Tackling advanced concepts like computer programming takes more time and costs more money than most high schools can afford to allocate.
"Any learning like this requires an extended engagement with the material," he says. "Schools can't test everything that's worth learning. A test in our camp is: If it works at the end of the week, you pass."