2012 STEM Video Game Challenge Underway

Game-design contest inspires and educates.

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A heads up to aspiring game designers: The 2012 National STEM Video Game Challenge is now open for entries.

The contest is open to students and game designers in four levels: middle school, high school, college and graduate students, and educators. Entrants have until March 12 to submit their ideas and games.

The goal is to build up a cache of games that can be used to teach STEM concepts to students who might not normally be interested, says Allyson Peerman, president of the AMD Foundation, one of the sponsors of the challenge.

"It's a motivating platform," she says. "When you put a game in front of [students], they get excited. Even if they haven't played games before, they can do it in a matter of minutes."

The benefits of the challenge are twofold: Students who design a game have to learn the skills needed to produce it, and, because entries must teach a STEM concept, students will learn while playing it.

Last year's winners created both simple and complex games.

Rhys Wynn Wilkinson, a sixth-grader in Manor, Texas, used the online game-building platform Gamestar Mechanic to create a sustainability game.

"You control a dinosaur that has to eat plants," he says. "If you eat the plants too quickly, you won't have anything left, but if you don't eat them fast enough, you'll starve."

A game-design firm in Madison, Wis., created a commercial game called "You Make Me Sick," in which players design custom viruses and bacteria to try to infect different in-game characters.

Both types of games are necessary to help improve student engagement, Peerman says. Wilkinson's game was designed to introduce elementary school students to the concepts of energy efficiency and sustainability.

"Teachers need new tools and methods to be able to engage students," she says. "The old model doesn't cut it anymore."

The contest has a huge cast of supporters, including President Obama, who announced the inaugural contest last year. This year, partners include AMD, Microsoft, PBS Kids, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and the George Lucas Education Foundation. In September, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the contest an "extraordinary opportunity that encourages children across the country to pair lessons they've learned … with their imaginations and creativity."

Wilkinson says he's already dreaming up his next entry.

"I hope to get an early start this year," he says. "I want to make a game that's unique."

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