Justin Reich is joined by Susanna Pollack, president and director of Games for Change and Kate Selkirk-Litman, founding teacher and curriculum specialist at Quest to Learn, to discuss games in education and the STEM Your Game Challenge, a contest for game developers to reframe game design with the lean of serving STEM education. “The community that we want to tap through this challenge is the commercial entertainment game developer. The game developer who might not have thought about the use of their games in educational contexts, but think that there might be something unique about their game, that if paired with a curriculum developer, curriculum advisor, or an educator like Kate, could actually find those threads and those connections to align with STEM education…” - Susanna Pollack Note: The deadline for submissions has since been extended to January 6, 2021.
Justin Reich is joined by Susanna Pollack, president and director of Games for Change and Kate Selkirk-Litman, founding teacher and curriculum specialist at Quest to Learn, to discuss games in education and the STEM Your Game Challenge, a contest for game developers to reframe game design with the lean of serving STEM education.
“The community that we want to tap through this challenge is the commercial entertainment game developer. The game developer who might not have thought about the use of their games in educational contexts, but think that there might be something unique about their game, that if paired with a curriculum developer, curriculum advisor, or an educator like Kate, could actually find those threads and those connections to align with STEM education…” - Susanna Pollack
Note: The deadline for submissions has since been extended to January 6, 2021.
In this episode we’ll talk about:
Resources and Links
Learn more about the STEM Your Game Challenge!
Check out Justin Reich’s new book, Failure To Disrupt!
Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley
Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley
Justin Reich: From the home studios of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. Today we're here with Susanna Pollack, the president and director at Games for Change, a non-profit that empowers game creators to create social impact through games and immersive media. Susanna, thanks for joining us.
Susanna Pollack: Thank you for having me.
Justin Reich: And we're here with Kate Litman, who's a founding teacher and curriculum specialist at Quest to Learn, a New York city public school designed around the principles of games and game like learning and a mentor for the STEM Your Game Challenge. Kate, thanks for joining us.
Kate Selkirk-Litman: Thank you for having me.
Justin Reich: So Kate, yesterday the city of New York announced that all schools would be closing effectively immediately. Can you tell us a little bit about Quest To Learn and about how you all are adapting your model to these current challenges?
Kate Selkirk-Litman: Well, that's a great question. So yeah, I'm definitely in a strange universe right now. I am sitting in my neighbor's kitchen because she's at work and I have no private space to do my teaching remotely from home. But I think Quest To Learn is a really special school where we use all of these game design principles in how we plan our curriculum and then how we plan professional development and things of that nature. So I am literally every day trying to figure out what games have I played in previous years that I can get the kids to play this year, that will work on an iPad or an iPhone, or maybe a Chromebook. And how do I teach the kids how to unblock flash player, if that's a game that we're still using.
And so there is definitely a lot of workarounds to getting these games that we built and that we've used for many years and are successful implementing and translating them to a remote setting. So that is, every day, a problem solving protocol that we have to figure out. So it's a challenge. We just did a PD on Monday where the teachers learned some Google Chrome extensions through a goose chase scavenger hunt game. So we're still trying to live up to our principles, even in these challenging times.
Justin Reich: What you say resonates so much with what we've heard from so many teachers. Especially really veteran master teachers like yourself, where you put all this time and effort into building something that works in one context. And then it's almost like becoming a first year teacher again, of trying to have to... Maybe it feels a little bit like the founding year of Quest To Learn, of saying, "We know we have these principles and we have to now rapidly figure out how we're going to make them work in this current context." Are there any adaptations things that you or your colleagues have done over the past few weeks or months where you go, "There's a lot of stuff that's been really hard. But wow! That one landed really well. That's exciting to see an example of how we can make our models still work at a distance."
Kate Selkirk-Litman: Well, this is sort of a silly example, but some of the games that I've been able to play historically, like Ratio Rumble that used to be hosted through Math Snacks, and BrainPOP used to host the game as well. If I can't get a kid to play at home, I can give them my remote control through Zoom and they can play through my computer. So that's a workaround. And I think Jamboard is definitely the next place I'm going to be looking to build some of my car games in a digital space where the kids can manipulate them at the same time. I haven't done that yet, but that's my next plan of attack. And then honestly, I'm a math teacher and Desmos is my bread and butter, and I love them so much. And there are so many games, sorry, activities on Desmos that are game-like and are really living up to some of those principles, even though they're technically just math activities. There's so much quality out there that's worth exploring for all subject areas
Justin Reich: Because in the Desmos platform, I think that notion of play, the idea that you're not just trying to get students to operate certain functions, but to get them to do what gamers do. To explore, to test, to iterate, to have a trial and to have there be some playful context around it. We've had Dan Meyer come on recently and talk with, Michael Pershan, Who's also used it quite a bit. So yeah, that's a great example. Susanna, how has COVID in the shift to remote learning influenced your thinking about the possibility for educational games? When we're thinking about creating, engaging, remote learning experiences, what can we learn from Games for Change?
Susanna Pollack: Well, we have been working in the education space for quite a few years and running a game design program for middle and high school students where we typically would train educators in-person at PD sessions to bring this program into the classroom. Now, of course, with COVID, we don't have that opportunity not only to meet with educators firsthand, but then the educators themselves aren't working with us with the students firsthand.
But what we've found through this past year is that most of the work that we do is transferable to a virtual setting. Educators are looking, like Kate, looking for new and innovative ways to connect with their kids in a virtual context. And that game design and game like learning, there's more of a demand for it now. There's a recognition that this is actually a really useful and effective tool and medium in which to engage their kids, whether it's in a design context, like what we have been doing with the schools that we've been working with the past five years, or as a medium in which to teach curriculum through.
So, it's an odd silver lining, this very terrible situation that we find ourselves in around the world. But for the advocacy that we've been doing about the positive nature and the use that games can have in the classroom, it's becoming more immediate now. And people are responsive.
Justin Reich: Susanna, Games for Change has a STEM Your Game Challenge, where game developers have until December 1st to submit their game either in a final, a released version or kind of beta. Susanna, can you tell us about the challenge and what inspired it?
Susanna Pollack: Sure. So this particular program that we're running is actually focused on the professional game developer community, as opposed to educating younger people on how to make games, although the output, the games that we're looking for the developer community to submit are to serve that audience. They're to serve middle school students, particularly focused on STEM education. But the community that we want to tap through this challenge is the commercial entertainment game developer, the game developer who might not have thought about the use of their games in educational contexts, but think that there might be something unique about their game, that if paired with a curriculum developer, a curriculum adviser, or an educator like Kate, can actually find those threads and those connections to align with STEM education and find their way into the classroom as having like an added bonus of somebody who's working strictly in the commercial, in the entertainment space, but with an education focus.
Justin Reich: And Kate, you're a mentor for the STEM Your Game Challenge, trying to build these bridges between the education community and the game development community, how do you guide developers when they're trying to adapt games into learning experience?
Kate Selkirk-Litman: Well, I'm new at this work, but normally what we look for is some learning objective, that's going to line up with the curriculum that we're teaching. And so I think sometimes an educator, when looking at an entertainment only game, can see some of the mathematical representations, some of the closer reading you have to do when you get backgrounds of different characters in different games. And so I think that added level of the educator lens and to pick out the different learning goals that could potentially be embedded into the game are added in as a layer, is something that a mentor can offer to the game designers that are purely focused on entertainment. So I think Among Us is a really good example where-
Justin Reich: So Among Us is this game which has just blown up across the United States and people might be familiar if you went to summer camp with games like Mafia or Warewolves, but in this version of the online game, there are 10 little astronauts who are trying to operate a spaceship. And it turns out that one of them is an imposter trying to blow up the spaceship. And the other nine people have to figure out who the imposter is. So it's kind of a a deductive reasoning group dynamics game. So what kinds of connections do you see with that in school based learning?
Kate Selkirk-Litman: So it could be anything like something as simple as like behavioral analysis where you're looking for the actions that seem normal versus the actions that seem suspect, and is there some ratio that's going to tip you off and you can think about that proportional reasoning. Logic, you can also think about the movement on the screen, and if their character is moving in a way that's abnormal. So I think there's ways for you to tweak some of these games and add in that learning component with just a little bit of teacher expertise.
Justin Reich: And Susanna, is the hope that the games themselves will change, that the producers of Among Us would submit like Among Us EDU version with different features and functionality that highlighted these things or that there would be curriculum that was built around these game learning experiences. What do you think is the most promising way for this integration to happen?
Susanna Pollack: Well, we're not expecting the commercial game developers to have the expertise off the bat, right? To say how they would adapt the game for educational context. Well, we do want them to do is to tease out where they think there might be a direction to go and a willingness to partner with the educators and the curriculum advisors that we bring into the project. We very much see this as a collaborative effort and are very excited about bringing these two disciplines together. That's very much what Games for Change is all about. And at the end of the day, we really hope that we are going to inspire a whole sector to think about ed tech as a viable outlet for their games.
Justin Reich: What are some of the characteristics that a winning submission will have?
Susanna Pollack: Well, I think what Kate was referencing, I think is relevant. So we were looking for a game that... Well first of all, the game has to be at least at beta level or released. We're not looking at a game concepts. So the game developers have to show proficiency and the ability to do adapt and to create a fun and entertaining game. It has to be built in such a way that we can unpack it and add threads to it that would have a curriculum and a learning goal engineered back into the game. But we're keeping our minds really open as to what the look of the game would be like, what the original concepts or the type of game, whether it's a endless runner's game, or it's a first person shooter game. There are a number of different types of games that would, would qualify.
Justin Reich: So looking back over the last 20 or 30 years of efforts to integrate commercial games into schooling and teaching and learning, and I was a history teacher for a number of years. A number of folks were very interested in how the civilization series of games could be used in teaching and learning. As you're thinking about what these things might be able to look like, are there examples from the past that you could point to where we say, "This was a high point for the integration between games and schooling."
Susanna Pollack: Well, I particularly like, Civilization is a great example. That game, although there hasn't been formal curriculum designed for it, clearly had aspects of it in terms of the world building and having to develop financial systems, security systems, economic and sustainability systems, really lends itself really well.
But then there are other games, like I love talking about Assassin's Creed, because there's a commercial game that certainly did not have an interest to be educational from its early design, but it was developed alongside a franchise historian who put terrific effort into making sure that there were historical references. And Ubisoft saw this opportunity as they saw educators who've been modding the game for years, trying to figure out how to bring it into the classroom because you had generation of kids falling in love with world's history. And then they went ahead and developed Assassin's Creed Discovery Tour, which took two a stripped out some of the aspects of the game, like the first person shooter aspect that couldn't be experienced in the classroom, but created more of an open-ended museum like experience, which used the assets and the visual design and historical context that kids love. And that to me is probably one of the more recent examples that I'd like to see more of.
Justin Reich: That's great. Well, Susanna Pollack from Games for Change and Kate Litman from the Quest To Learn School, thanks so much for joining us.
Susanna Pollack: Thank you.
Kate Selkirk-Litman: Thanks for having us.
Justin Reich: That was Susanna Pollack and Kate Litman. Thanks to them both for joining us, be sure to check out the STEM Your Game Challenge, and for game developers, submissions are open until December 1st. I think for teachers and educators, it'll be fun some months, hence to find out who won and learn more about them. You can find a link to the contest in our show notes. I'm Justin Reich. Thanks for listening to TeachLab, I hope you enjoyed our conversation. Be sure to subscribe to TeachLab to get future episodes and check out the new book, Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education, available from booksellers everywhere. You can read reviews, relate media, and sign up for online at failuretodisrupt.com that's failuretodisrupt.com. This episode of TeachLab was produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley, recorded and sound mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe, until next time.