Video games a way to zap science doldrums
Matthew Marino. The computer screen
shows a science video game he helped
create. (Photo by Julie Titone, College
Matt Marino to the rescue.
Marino, an assistant professor at WSU, is working with two leading education companies to create science video games that redefine how middle school students learn about science.
“If you’re reading at a fourth grade level, middle school science vocabulary can be pretty brutal,” said Marino, whose goal is to help students meet new federal science education standards - and have fun doing it. His partners on the game project are Wisconsin-based Filament Games and Texas-based PCI Education.
The software design would come from Filament, whose clients include National Geographic and the National Science Foundation. Together, the partners are seeking federal grants to develop a series of games to enhance Earth, life and physical science courses.
“One game we’re proposing allows a player to takes the `helm’ of an animal cell, overseeing the command center of all the cell's functions,” Marino said. “As the captain on deck, the player monitors and controls the cell's different `stations’ - the ribosome control center, vacuole command - and responds to some cellular drama, such as an attack by another cell or a barrage of toxic materials.”
While the games are designed for students with learning disabilities, Marino said, they also help English language learners and other students who have a difficult time with science. As learners master the material, they just move to the next level of difficulty.
“Help is built into all of the levels,” said Marino. “For example, if a student gets confused, an avatar might pop up on the screen to offer expert guidance.”
Schools in Washington, Texas and Florida have expressed interest in testing the pilot versions of the games. If all goes well, the games eventually would be marketed by PCI, the country’s largest provider of learning materials for students with special needs.
“We’ve had a lot of requests for virtual, software-based curriculum,” said Jill Haney, PCI’s director of reading and government relations. “Kids talk about how they go to school and have to ‘power down.’ School has become an old-fashioned part of their lives.”
Besides engaging students, Haney added, digital games also make it a snap for teachers to track and document what students are learning.
Dan Norton, lead designer for Filament Games, met Marino at a gathering called by PCI to update its staff on the world of digital learning. Norton said he was “pre-impressed” with Marino, having earlier come across an award-winning learning game named “Alien Rescue” that Marino helped design. “It was really good - and there are a lot of bad ones out there.”
Norton described a bad learning game as one with lots shooting and running, but no relation to learning objectives.
“They just mix traditional learning structures with the elements of a commercial game and then hope the fun will overcome the tedium of the educational part,” he said. “We’re not interested in doing shooting games about science.”
Filament deals exclusively with educational games, but never has designed one specifically for students with disabilities, Norton said.
“This is a great opportunity for us.”
The partners are focusing on middle school because that’s when students with learning disabilities begin to significantly fall behind their peers in science courses, Marino said.
“By exciting them about science in middle school, we think that, later in life, they are likely to take advanced coursework and pursue careers in the sciences,” Marino said.
“Kids with disabilities can be successful in science when the curriculum meets their individual learning needs. We also know that students with disabilities rely more on technology than their peers without disabilities,” he added.
“We hope to provide students from across the country with virtual world science games that are inexpensive and designed to run on computers in almost any classroom in the U.S.”
For more information about Matthew Marino, see his WSU faculty profile.