Logo: University of Southern California

GameDesk Debuts at Crenshaw High School

A revolutionary new game-building program challenges at-risk students to learn basic concepts in math and science

March 12, 2009 —

A revolutionary new approach to improving student cognition and engaging young minds in an active learning process debuted at Crenshaw High School this semester.  

The USC Viterbi School program, called GameDesk, challenges 15-to-17-year olds to create their own computer games using game tools, such as GameMaker, to build educational and entertainment video games from scratch.  GameDesk combines technology, art, and mathematics in a unique curriculum that makes learning fun and encourages students to learn basic concepts if they want to turn their ideas into live action games.       

Victor Lacour, associate director for games research at IMSC, explains a GameDesk lesson to Crenshaw High School students.

GameDesk currently consists of a three-school pilot program developed and implemented by researchers from Viterbi’s Integrated Media Systems Center (IMSC).

"GameDesk is designed to improve students' mathematical and analytical skills, and stimulate their natural instincts to learn,” said Victor Lacour, associate director for games research at IMSC.  "The approach is active rather than passive learning, because that approach engages and empowers them to create something that is all their own and that they have control over.  But they have to really understand certain mathematical equations and science concepts in order to create their games.”

The pilot schools are Jordan High School, Crenshaw High and Pomona Valley High. They were chosen in part because they are among Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) "high priority/program improvement” schools.  That means they are targeted for curricula and faculty improvements, and standards-based instruction and assessment procedures, to enhance student test scores and graduation rates, said Scott Specter, LAUSD’s technology specialist.  

“Many of these kids have it tough and they feel like going to school is largely irrelevant to their daily lives,” Specter said.  “We needed to find some new approaches to classroom instruction that would get them excited and be more relevant culturally and educationally.”

A student implements the use of fractions, integers and cartesian coordinates to build a maze game.

Live at Crenshaw High
After refinements were made in the program, based on lessons learned in the Jordan High School pilot course, GameDesk went live at Crenshaw High School six weeks ago.   

“I have high expectations for GameDesk’s positive influence on teaching and learning at Crenshaw High School,” said Sylvia Rousseau, professor of clinical education in USCs Rossier School of Education and USC’s representative in the Greater Crenshaw Educational Partnership, which has oversight of Crenshaw High.

“The value of the GameDesk class is that it integrates technology, art and mathematics to create opportunities to learn,” she said.  “These tasks result in real products created by students.  The process of creating products is a major means of helping our students adopt identities as producers, not just consumers, particularly of technology.  Hopefully, the school will continue creating opportunities for students to engage in product-based learning. Students will then carry perceptions of themselves as producers into other learning situations and into life.”

GameDesk’s magic is embedded in game lesson modules, which the students must use to build their games, but which require an understanding of basic science concepts and the ability to solve mathematical equations.  Learning to solve the equations fulfills standards-based educational requirements.

“In a physics class, for instance, a motion equation would traditionally be introduced by the teacher in the form of a lecture, where students complete exercises and homework, and are ultimately tested in exam form,” Lacour said.  “But in GameDesk, they make ‘Car Crash Derby,’ learning the motion equation as a game-tool to build the game. “
Girls are all smiles when they see their game creations come to life.

Embedded Standards
The trick is not to force difficult topics onto the students but to capture their interest and make them want to learn these concepts, Lacour continued.  “So, in the first semester, the students learn how to make several different types of games, each one having embedded standards within the games design and tutorial processes.  Math standards such as fractions, algebraic equations and percentages are part of the process.”

GameDesk’s technology includes several skills sets identified by UC San Diego professors as necessary for successful learning, Rousseau said.  The program uses mathematics diagnostic testing to identify where students are weakest and creates game-making lessons to address those critical areas.

“We are extremely hopeful that the use of technology and the motivation to create a ‘product’ (game) will make these math skill sets more accessible to our students," Rousseau said. "Obviously, we hope to see significant changes in our students’ mathematics conceptualization and performance.”

Team-building is an important part of the GameDesk learning process, Lacour said.  At Jordan High, it was a new experience and proved to be valuable. 

"It gave students a chance to belong to something, to create a fraternity or club-like atmosphere, and to learn how to communicate with each other,” Lacour said.  “It also allowed them to discover their own strengths and weaknesses.  Whereas one student might be really good in problem-solving, another might be artistically inclined. “

Another unique aspect of GameDesk is giving students a culturally relevant learning experience.  “The games they are creating are really a form of self-expression, because they are based on personal experiences, what’s going on in their communities and in their lives,” Lacour explained.

Attitude Improvement
David G. Brown, a Jordan High School teacher and graphic artist for the L.A. Sentinel, reported a vast improvement in Jordan High School students’ attitudes toward classroom instruction.  

Students design "Ghost Escape" and solve equations to make their ghosts move. 

“You should have seen the change in attitude when the students were introduced to game-building,” he said. “I was amazed at how well they responded to the challenge and how interested they are in learning how to build their games.

“When they started doing something that was driven by their own ideas, they really got excited,” he added.  “They became empowered…they started asking questions and wanted to know more.”

Lacour and two USC graduate students provide classroom technical assistance several times a week for the program.  Once the program caught on at Jordan High, the IMSC team began planning part two, in which game teams would work with assigned content teachers in math, physics, history, geography and other subjects to build a fun educational game.

“We utilize translational learning as a methodology to help students learn actively, passionately and with context,” Lacour said.  “So in content learning, such as a World War II history lesson, the students really have to understand the material before they can create a game based on a World War II battle.  They have to translate the knowledge.  That’s where the real learning comes in.”

Rousseau added that educators hope to integrate other content and skills into the program, and involve more teachers and students in GameDesk learning starting this fall.  

But as it stands, GameDesk has already exposed hundreds of at-risk teenage students to its innovative and engaging learning curriculum. And that's not counting the third pilot school, Pomona Valley High School, which is still eagerly awaiting its turn.