The Latest Tools for Teaching STEM: Video Games

Video games can keep kids motivated to learn STEM subjects. Programming, experts say, is 'just a new kind of literacy.'

Could video games be the key to keeping kids interested in STEM?

Could video games be the key to keeping kids interested in STEM?

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Beyond fostering learning in a particular topic, game design teaches a new language, says Frank Lantz, director of the Game Center at New York University.

"It's important for kids to recognize that programming is a fundamental literacy they can learn," Lantz says. "There is a bit of a cult mentality still around programming, but no, it's just a new kind of literacy."

The advent of teaching through video games has also led to the rise of competitions, such as the National STEM Video Game Challenge.

Through the challenge, which the Obama administration launched in 2010, middle school and high school students submit original game designs for a chance to win prizes for themselves and money for their schools or a nonprofit of their choosing. Last spring, Microsoft announced the launch of a similar competition requiring students to use its own platform, Kodu.

The benefits of teaching STEM through video games are many, educators and industry experts say. Chief among them is increased engagement.

The value proposition here is about "closing the engagement gap," Lindl says, pointing to the fact that classrooms have hardly changed in the past century.

The percentage of students dropping out of high school indicates a lack of interest in education that has reached crisis level, several people interviewed for this article said. Incorporating video games is a powerful way to keep students motivated to learn.

One of the other key elements is how well it supports the learner.

With the constant feedback and positive rewards, "students are far more likely to be comfortable with and to learn from failure," Lindl says.

Fisher agrees. With games, students learn "based on their willingness to put in effort and explore the topic," she says. It's a way of capturing interest before a child decides that they are good or bad at it, Fisher adds.

The constant feedback also provides a treasure trove of data to support responsive teaching and learning, proponents of teaching STEM through video games say.

To steward these teaching methods to mainstream adoption, the old guard and the new guard will have to work hand in hand.

Despite the advances of the technology, the holy trinity of parent-child-teacher remains at the core of good education and everyone in the eco-system needs to support that, Lindl says.

The mission is urgent.

"We must engage many more Americans in developing their STEM expertise because the opportunity to find gainful employment is tremendous," Cator says.

And gaming provides a bright path forward to do that.

"All games, by their very nature, have a deep relationship to the core STEM skills of logic and reason, empiricism, the scientific method," Lantz said.

Eliza Krigman is a writer based in Washington, D.C., who has written extensively on technology. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Politico and the Washington Post, among other places. She can be reached at

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