Games-based Learning: National STEM Game-design Challenge and Connected Learning

The National STEM Game Design Challenge

This past Sunday, for the first time, the Museum partnered with the National STEM Game Design Challenge to support science content as a subject with game design entries. The Challenge, run by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center with its partners E-Line Media, is a “multi-year competition that aims to motivate interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] learning among America’s youth by tapping into students’ natural passion for playing and making video games.”

On February 10, more than two dozen youth bravely trekked through the remains of the February 8 snowstorm to participate in a day-long workshop led by high school youth leaders from Global Kids, Inc. Participants learned basic game design skills– such as the importance of iteration–and how to use the web-based game developing program, Gamestar Mechanic.

Throughout the day, Museum staff used the Museum and its content to inspire participants to consider how their game entries might address a particular area of science. For example, modeling is a critical part of science –if you want to study the Sun, it just isn’t possible to fly over and check it out. Scientists build models of the real world for all sorts of reasons, both for research and for communicating their findings. And one type of model used by both scientists and game designers is systems.

Models of scientific systems–like the water cycle, or how flowers are pollinated–bear similarities to games: they both create an analogy for something in the real world by distilling it down to its essential parts and identifying the often dynamic relationships between them. The Museum’s goal on Sunday was to help the participants learn how to identify a system in the real world and consider exploring it through their game design. To get things started, the youth traveled to the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life (you probably know it as the blue whale room), took part in a guided tour, and then set off on their mission to identify a system depicted within the hall.

Overall, it was a great start for the participating youth, many of whom will return to the Museum in March to share their early designs and get feedback both from each other and gaming professionals.

Connected Learning

What does any of this have to do with Connected Learning (and, as a matter of fact, what is Connected Learning)?

In October 2006, at the American Museum of Natural History (yes, this one), the MacArthur Foundation announced a new five-year, $50 million-dollar initiative to revisit what learning looks like in the 21st century. What they found is that schools play a key role in youth’s lives but so do a wide-range of other learning environments–after school programs, museums, libraries, web sites, video games, and more–many of which are supported by digital media. Youth are learning in new ways, across new ecologies, and learning institutions are struggling to keep up and understand it all.

Recently, the MacArthur Foundation encapsulated their almost eight years of considerable research into a new report summarizing what they call Connected Learning. Its ideas and the research behind it affect youth learning across a wide variety of fields, museums being just one example.

So back to the question: What does the Museum’s involvement with the Challenge have to do with Connected Learning? In fact, the program this week was an excellent example of Connected Learning in practice. If you like to geek-out on infographics, here’s one from Connected Learning:

Connected Learning

As you can see, Connected Learning is centered on the intersection of three principles: peer culture, youth interest, and academics.

Peer Culture: While the Challenge and this week’s event were organized by adults and adult institutions, it was driven by the youth, who facilitated the workshop and set the light-hearted but serious tone that shaped the day.

Youth Interest: The youth participants love games. They play Minecraft. They design games in Scratch. The event spoke to their interest to combine the two.

Academics: This principle is broader than it sounds, concerned with not just academics, but youth’s future role in the workplace and civic sphere. It’s about the crucial role adults can play helping youth see beyond the horizon. And as Henry Jenkins often says, it’s not through looking over their shoulders but having their back. And that’s what all the parents and guardians were doing at the event, designing games alongside the youth and responding just as thoughtfully to the Global Kids’ youth leaders in charge.

Connected Learning can be a powerful tool for framing youth activities and for helping us understand what place digital media consumption and production can have within museum-based learning programs.

About Barry

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