National Academy of Science Awards Grant to Game Design Group

Los Angeles nonprofit uses computer games to engage students in STEM.

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The National Academy of Sciences has awarded a Los Angeles-based organization $225,000 to develop science-based games for the classroom that the group hopes will become the "textbooks of the future."

GameDesk Institute, a nonprofit made up of University of Southern California researchers, might just be up to the taskā€”the group recently announced a partnership to create games with Bill Nye the Science Guy, already has an impressive slate of educational games, and has a California charter school in the works.

[Learn how teachers are using gaming in classrooms.]

"We're trying to create one experience," says Lucien Vattel, executive director of GameDesk. "If you play [one of our] games, you're going to get the knowledge that you would get from the textbook, so you can experience the content in a different way."

Vattel says the National Academy grant will be used to develop "ambitious" games that will test students as they play. Vattel hopes students will be able to take knowledge they learn while playing the game and apply it elsewhere, such as on state exams or on real-world problems, something known as "transfer."

"It's the ability to effectively take that knowledge you've learned and put it to current established forms of testing," he says. Students participating in a pilot of the nonprofit's MathMaker game-making curriculum improved an average of 20 percent on California state math exams.

Over the past seven years, researchers at the organization have largely worked with minority and other underrepresented students to improve STEM achievement and engagement, to "check back in those who had checked out," Vattel says.

[Read more about how game design can be used to teach STEM.]

Over the past year, the organization has expanded to serve a broader variety of students. Its current offerings include an iPad game that teaches aerodynamics, a PC and iPad game focused on thermal energy, and an "emotion regulation game" targeted to high school dropouts and students in the juvenile justice system.

But going forward, GameDesk will focus on a broader audience. Itll get that started with Bill Nye-based games. Vattel says the nonprofit hopes to "bring him into the 21st century" with iPad and iPhone games based on his popular science show.

After that, GameDesk will open a charter school, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, somewhere in Los Angeles. The first class will have about 120 sixth graders and will expand to serve sixth to 12th grades. It will serve as a testing ground for GameDesk's newest products.

"We want to certify our programs and show that it works," Vattel says. "Our goal is to serve schools nationwide."

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