Graduate Students Designing Games to Teach Genetics

I was invited to be a quest critic for a class at the Parsons New School that had challenged the students to work with educational content related to genetics and then design a multimodal game to engage and teach high school youth. The content had been developed for a game being created for the New York Hall of Science (coming in 2013). It was instructive to see how they approached the design challenge of balancing good game play with good content.

As most have not learned to be educators, much of their designs focused on the materials with which they worked (as all had to develop innovative user interfaces) and the basic game design elements. At the same time, most – but not all – effectively identified something about the educational content that could be described as a system which could then be imported into the game design, and as something the user could embody or manipulate. And that’s good teaching.

This group for example was an analog game in which the players embody chromosomes, which they wore, and then simulate the process of meiosis by learning how to swap their chromosomes with others so they could “divide”.

Each gene’s trait was described, such as “single joint,” attached to an arm band by velcro. And inside each trait is a pocket, which when opened gave the player candy!

The second one explored allele patterns, to show how parents’ genes are combined to produce their offspring, focusing on the relationship between dominant and recessive genes. These students used drumsticks as the interface and a puzzle which players had to decide (not, to my disappointment, by drumming, but by turning, clicking, and knocking the sticks):

The next one, Guess My Gene, was my favorite game, and was probably the most developed – both as a game and as an education tool. I even sensed in it a little magic. Using augmented reality tools and QR codes, the player sits in front of a computer, which then displays a live photo of the player with the results of their character’s traits. E.g. horns and green eyes. The player then has to work to figure out what the gene combination was from their parents (based on the options offered) to generate their character’s gene combination. There are other elements as well, and ideas they had for expanding it with levels and more scaffolded learning, but that’s the basics:

Finally, the last game was more a series of activities to design the content of your sperms and then race them to the egg to fertilize. All the games were tested at the recent Maker-Faire and, understandably, many parents pulled their young ones away during the last stage of this one. Designing educational content for one’s audience includes insuring the framing devices for the content are age appropriate – lesson learned!

Overall, it was great to see these students work so hard to understand how digital media, and specifically digital games, can be developed to engage disconnected youth and teach them valuable content. Each team also was composed of students will different skill sets – one was a programmer, one created textiles, and it was fascinating to see how the skills of the teams, more than perhaps anything else, shaped the final design of their projects.


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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