A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Get Your Game On: Video Games Make Learning Science Fun

February 21, 2012


By Catherine Probst Ferraro

Len Annetta

Video games get a bad rap these days. Often perceived as promoting excessive violence and sexism, many people believe that video games lack any real educational value. But Mason researcher Len Annetta knows this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In fact, Annetta, associate professor of science education in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, has tapped into this multibillion dollar industry to use video games as an educational tool in the classroom.

Specifically, Annetta’s research focuses on using video games to inspire and motivate students, particularly in underserved schools, to learn more about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. He also wants to encourage teachers to rethink how they teach science concepts in an environment that uses games to help students learn more effectively.

To this end, he is working on a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that is funding a project called the Games Requiring Advanced Developmental Understanding and Achievement in Technological Endeavors (GRADUATE), which works with high school science teachers and students on creating STEM-related games.

Educational games, he explains, encourage students to think critically, collaborate, and learn how to solve complex problems—skills that are vital in preparing students for the competitiveness of the 21st century.

“Because this generation of students has grown up with video games and the Internet, they learn differently, yet we are still teaching like we taught 20 years ago,” says Annetta, who also serves as the associate director of Mason’s Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology. “Past research shows us that students aren’t engaged in science, but if we combine [STEM] concepts with activities they already enjoy, we have a better chance at getting through to them.”

High school students working on computer games. Photo courtesy of Len Annetta.

His interest in this area began when he was teaching high school science in the late 1990s, and his students persuaded him to purchase his first SEGA Genesis. After that, he began integrating the science concepts he taught in class into basic video games he created with his students. Fast forward 15 years and a PhD in science education from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and Annetta is still hooked on video games.

In 2005, while an associate professor at North Carolina State University, Annetta became the lead investigator of the Highly Interactive Fun Internet Virtual Environments in Science (HI FIVES) program. Funded by NSF, HI FIVES took Annetta and his colleagues into the classroom where they worked with 75 middle school science teachers and 120 students over a three-year period at several disadvantaged schools in North Carolina.

Together with the researchers, the teachers learned how to create their own three-dimensional virtual worlds and environments based on various STEM concepts using an interactive platform that requires little, if any, programming training. A teacher using the software, explains Annetta, can build a three-dimensional coral reef to help students better understand underwater ecosystems.

This accessibility of making games is a key component of Annetta’s work. “I don’t expect students and teachers to be professional computer programmers,” he says. “They don’t need to know anything about programming, art, or animation—the software does it all for them. All they need to know is what kind of scenario they want to build based on the learning outcomes they’ve set for their students.”

Once the teachers completed the games and introduced them into the classroom, the students had a hand at using their own creativity and knowledge of science concepts to make the games even better. Some of the games that were created explored the solar system, developed methods for storing solar energy, and stopped a red fire ant invasion.

Len Annetta reviewing some material with the high school students. Photo courtesy of Len Annetta.

“Using games to involve students in the learning process can help motivate and encourage students to explore deeper understandings of science concepts they are building in their game worlds,” says Annetta. “The positive results we saw at the end of the HI FIVES program were proof that students need engaging activities to be excited about learning.”

HI FIVES’ success has led to Annetta’s current work on the GRADUATE project, which began in 2008 with 40 science teachers and 100 students from two high schools in North Carolina, both of which have dropout rates near 60 percent. For this project, the researchers partnered with Virtual Heroes, a game development company based in Raleigh, North Carolina, that is a leader in the educational and so-called “serious” games industry.

For the past two years, Annetta and his team have held numerous summer workshops where they work with teachers and students to familiarize them with the software, as well as develop ideas for their games based on science concepts they learn in class during the school year, specifically on renewable and reusable energy.

Critical thinking and creativity played a huge role in designing the games as students were tasked with storyboarding their games and including all the same essential elements that make a good story—exciting narrative, interesting characters, and a compelling plot line. At the end of the year, 27 games were completed on such topics as sickle cell anemia, diabetes, medical ethics, and neuroscience, to name a few.

After the project ended in North Carolina, Annetta reports that, of the students who participated, all but one went on to graduate from high school. “We hope it’s because they were more interested in what they were learning and realized how it can be relevant in their everyday lives,” he says.

Since coming to Mason in 2010, Annetta has continued the GRADUATE project. Currently, he is working with 180 students and five science teachers from three Virginia high schools: Massaponax High School, Riverbend High School, and Spotsylvania High School.

Three doctoral students from the College of Education and Human Development’s science education leadership program are working with Annetta on the project. Each student is assigned to one of the high schools and will work closely with the students and teachers throughout the academic year.

This time around, Annetta took a slightly different approach. During a recently completed summer workshop, he worked with teachers to develop lesson plans on a variety of environmental issues. The teachers will use these lesson plans during the school year, and the students will create games based on the concepts they learn. By April, Annetta hopes to have nearly 80 games completed. The games will be available online for download by other teachers looking for similar games.

Annetta is confident he will see the same positive results after the GRADUATE project that he has seen in the past. “Using educational games in the classroom is no longer considered ‘the next big thing,’” he says. “It’s already arrived; we just need to take advantage of it.”


1 Comment »

  1. […] Video Games Make Learning Science Fun, Len Annetta, GMU   Volgenau Lab for Gaming and Intelligent Animation (GAIA) […]

    Pingback by Using Computer and Online Games for STEM Education | Scott Joy — August 21, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

Leave a comment