Serious Games for STEM Learning

STEM is an acronym used to represent the educational areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and it is typically used when addressing education policy and practice. The term was initially coined in relation to the widespread difficulty that secondary education students have with these topics as stated by several international comparative studies like PISA or TIMMS. This difficulty (and students’ rejection of these subjects) prevents these students to follow a technical academic path like Engineering and Sciences. This is not due to lesser skills of these youngsters, but mostly due to wrong teaching strategies. We cannot forget that this generation is the “net-generation” or “digital natives“: they quickly absorb information in shorter chunks, they expect instant responses and feedback and they want to be active in their learning. They want science learning to be more than simple fact or formula throwing by the teachers: they want to experiment, visualize and demonstrate, by means of which they succeed in constructing their own knowledge. Students need to be able to integrate their learning in their social-communication-technology environment.

We know that games and simulations can be instantiated for learning as they involve mental and physical stimulation and develop practical skills – they force the player to decide, to choose, to define priorities, to solve problems, etc. These are competences and skills that match the requirements for science and technology academic programmes and professional careers. ‘Video games can enable STEM education from elementary school all the way through college as they teach skills such as analytical thinking, multitasking, strategizing, problem-solving, and team building.’ (Klopfer, 2015).

This is currently one of the most quick and interesting development areas for serious games with many interesting projects and initiatives. A few examples:

  • In the USA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a Funding Opportunity for Serious STEM Games for Pre-College and Informal Science Education Audiences (NIH, 2014). The purpose of this funding opportunity is to grant applications to develop serious STEM games with a focus on biology that addresses health and medicine questions for pre-kindergarten to grade 12 (P-12) students and pre- and in-service teachers;
  • Also in the USA, the Smithsonian in partnership with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and E-Line Media created the 2014-15 National STEM Video Game Challenge (Smithsonian, 2014);
  • The Australian STEM Video Game Challenge is a national competition open to all Australian students in Years 5-12 (ACER, 2015).

These last two challenges are especially interesting because students learn by creating the games themselves instead of just playing the games.

Scientifically, several conferences and journals address this topic independently or as part of the overall programme:

  • The ninth European Conference on Games Based Learning (ECGBL, 2015) that will take place in Steinkjer, Norway on October 8-9, has a special track entirely dedicated to the use of Serious Games in STEM. Articles approach programming learning, learning AI techniques, geometry teaching, engineering soft skills and other STEM topics;
  • The fifth EAI International Conference on Serious Games, Interaction and Simulation (SGAMES, 2015) that will take place in Novedrate, Italy from the 16th to the 18th of September also presents articles related to the use of serious games in STEM, approaching topics like engineering skills, mathematics learning and image processing.

Therefore, it is quite difficult to select just a few games that show how to use this learning approach, given the large number of excellent serious games available. But here is a try:

  • One example of an interesting serious game for STEM learning is the alternate reality game called DUST that tries to encourage teens, especially girls and minorities, to get excited about these topics (DUST, 2015). In the game, adults worldwide fall unconscious because of mysterious dust from a meteor shower. It is up to the players, whose target ages are 13-17, to save the world (and their parents’ lives) by the end of seven weeks of play. Over the course of the game, players receive new parts of the story and science clues two to three times a week through social media, email and game apps. They work as a community to add their own input, guide the action, do research and provide solutions to help rescue the adult characters;
  • The eCITY project and game aims to develop and validate a pedagogical methodology, supported by an online, collaborative, city-development simulation engine that stimulates the integration and continuous exploitation of Problem Based Learning in engineering schools but, at the same time, fostering the interest in Engineering in secondary school students (eCity, 2015);
  • The EU funded ITEC project created a maths game for primary school students aged 9-10 that used the game to develop programming skills for primary school students.

This is currently one of the most rewarding and creative areas of Serious Games with an extensive number of successful approaches and it is certainly one to follow closely in the next months.