Challenge to Innovate Grant Looking For Best Ideas on Gaming in the Classroom

Today’s teens and elementary school students are focused on everything technology, from the popular Angry Birds game, to Facebook and Twitter, to online virtual reality games. But how can interactive technology and game-based learning help students learn about physics, geography, and social studies? Many teachers have already started incorporating electronic gaming and interactive learning into their curricula, and have noticed positive results.

Now, those teachers who have made progress in their classrooms through interactive gaming, or teachers who want to incorporate gaming, have the unique opportunity to expand on these approaches and put other great ideas to the test with a new grant.

The NEA Foundation recently partnered with Microsoft-US Partners in Learning in its latest Challenge to Innovate (C2i), encouraging public school educators to explore, share, and discuss their responses to this question on the Department of Education’s Open Innovation Portal. Students and parents are invited to register for free and share their ideas, and so far, more than 9,200 people have registered and joined the C2i community. The 10 best ideas, judged by the online forum community, will receive $1,000 cash awards and recognition.

“Nine out of 10 kids, between the ages of two and 17, play electronic games in the U.S, according to a recent national study. Should these new tools be limited to simple fun, or can they open new doors to learning?” said Harriet Sanford, President and CEO of the NEA Foundation. “The next great teaching frontier is light years away from chalk and erasers. If we change the classroom conversation from a one-way exercise to an engaging process that is constantly being renewed and refined, what would happen? Can gaming and education be combined in effective ways?”

With approximately 64 million adolescents playing electronic games in the U.S., it shouldn’t be difficult to turn the tables on learning in the classroom.

David McDivitt, a world history and sociology teacher at Oak Hill High School in Converse, Indiana, says his students learn important lessons about cause and effect through games. In the game Making History, for example, students act as leaders of different countries during World War II. They have to make strategic decisions and anticipate the consequences, such as making a treaty with one country or violating a treaty with another. Their chosen strategies can also impact the outcome of the war, providing “excellent teachable moments,” McDivitt says.

“I’ve had kids tell me they don’t think the war would have lasted as long if countries had been more aggressive with Hitler earlier on,” he explains. “They can read that in a textbook, but they’re much more likely to remember it after seeing it played out.”

Students can learn strategic decision-making, project management, peer collaboration, and leadership.

Bill MacKenty, head of instructional design at Hunter College High School in New York City and a former Massachusetts elementary school teacher, says that goal-setting with games is key. “You have to have a conversation before and after the game; you have to ask questions and get students writing about what they’ve experienced, or that critical thinking isn’t crystallized,” he says. “If you stick a kid in front of the computer and expect something magical to happen, you’re going to be disappointed. You need to ask, ‘what are my objectives?’ You need planning and assessment. It’s just good teaching.”

MacKenty likes to use SimCity in his classroom. While planning and creating a virtual city, the game shows students how to build revenue through taxes, provide water and power sources, build industrial and residential zones, and learn why distances between them are important.

Ideas like McDivitt’s, MacKenty’s, and other innovative teachers’ not only pave the way to receiving grant money for new games in the classroom, but educators also have the opportunity to learn about other colleagues’ thoughts and tap into the resources at the C2i website.

In these tough economic times when districts are strapped for cash, every little bit helps. Proposed solutions for the gaming challenge will be accepted through March 5, 2012. To submit or to review, comment, or vote on solutions, participants must register on the Department of Education’s Portal. For details on how to participate or for more information, please visit the Foundation’s C2i page.