Logo: University of Southern California

ISI's Pedagogical Games Project Celebrates First Year Implementation at High School

Viterbi School team hosts game design and development workshop for local STEM teachers

August 02, 2012 —

A unique and highly successful Viterbi School initiative to use interest in videogames as leverage in teaching math and collaborative skills to at-risk secondary students concluded its pilot implementation early this summer.

PedTeknicians: Jeannie Lee Novak, Jihie Kim and Erin Shaw
The project's goal is to address retention, career education and secondary mathematics learning by embedding math concepts into a computer game-making curriculum, and also to teach collaboration. Or, as Principal Investigator Dr. Jihie Kim has written: “to embed Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) content into the curriculum, to measure learning, and to promote effective reflection and collaboration." Kim and Co-PI Erin Shaw have been working with videogame book author and project consultant Jeannie Lee Novak and two LAUSD teachers, Rajeev Talwani and Mitsuyo Clark from LEMA High School in East Los Angeles, to develop the interdisciplinary games course. A changing cast of Viterbi School Computer Science/Games students (this semester: Michael Joyce, Hao Chen, Ajinkya Waghulde, Zinan Xing) have provided teacher and technical support. 

Twenty-five middle school students participated in two four-week feasibility studies during the spring of 2011. The first study focused on individual game-making and integrated mathematics and the second on collaborative game making and design tools. By the fall of 2011, fifty new 9th grade students had signed up to take the “games course”, leading to a full-scale pilot implementation from fall 2011 to spring 2012. The course was taught by film instructor Talwani.

In the upcoming academic year, another new Pilot high school in east LA, Art Lab, will be participating. The school curriculum focuses on interdisciplinary project-based activities and has similar student population, along with a cast of new teachers.

Game Design and Development Course

The plan: give the students materials they could use to build games, and emphasize the mathematical concepts inherent in the game-making process — concepts such as rates and fractions, which were used set player speeds to grid multiples to ensure safe passage through mazes. Play testing sessions also provided an opportunity to use math. Data collected in these sessions was averaged and graphed to analyze game design.

Collaboration, according to Kim, is a fundamental 21st century skill that students must learn in the course. During the feasibility study, the investigative team found that groups of four students had trouble collaborating effectively and so this year, students worked (more effectively) in pairs. Students are introduced to “Moodle” a virtual learning environment that enables them to collaborate through computer mediated discussion, chat, blogs and wikis.

Teachers listen....

Students were extremely enthusiastic about the game making process and especially their games. They reported that the competitions were their favorite part of the course. Pre and post game-making evaluations of targeted pre-algebra and computational concepts – concepts that arise naturally from games the students make - show learning gains, in some cases, significant. However, games student results still need to be compared to control conditions.

The team is now focusing on building tools for instructional assessing, which will facilitate monitoring student progress..

Game Design and Development Workshop

To meet the program’s dissemination and scaling goals, researchers have presented results at conferences and have conducted a local workshop. Their recent paper and presentation on GameMath! – the integration of math into game-making – was nominated for Best Paper in the Mathematics Division at the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) annual conference, in San Antonio TX.

... as Jeannie Lee Novak explains the basics of interactive games
And just recently, the team hosted a workshop about the project for teachers who might be interested in piloting the program at their own schools. Participants included 14 local middle and high school STEM and Media Arts teachers and two observers, including a high school principal and a professor of education at USC. The enthusiastic group spent three intense days at the Viterbi School’s Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Rey, working with hosts Kim, Shaw, Novak and Talwani.

The workshop emphasized game design sessions led by Novak and game development sessions and teaching sessions led by Talwani, as well as collaborative tool sessions led by Shaw. PI Kim, Talwani and Shaw all gave lunchtime presentations.

Novak led the instructors through an introduction to video game design, beginning with game theory, and leading the group through several interactive design exercises. During these brainstorming sessions, Novak demonstrated techniques used in gaming and animation studios to improve group coordination, including “plussing,” a collaborative technique developed at Pixar Studios that concentrates on accepting ideas and avoiding judgment. On the final day, teachers worked in groups to design and pitch a new game to potential funders (aka the team leaders).

Talwani demonstrated several ways to teach game-making , including using instructional videos, and discussed classroom strategies for teaching math and computational concepts as part of the game-making sessions. Each day, teachers used Game Maker to create a different type of game. Shaw demonstrated how to use online activities utilizing discussion, blogging and chat tools to teach and collaborate on game design.

“The trick is to make school seem like videogames rather than make videogames seem like school,” said Talwani, who now has years of experience with the process. “Once the students see that with a small amount of effort they can create their own games, most become enthusiastic. The challenge for the teacher is to sustain this enthusiasm.”


DSCF 0021
caLA teachers learn to teach game design and development: Back row: Zinan "Melo" Xing, Ajinkya Waghulde, Andrew Brombach, Robert Urkofsky, Dustin Ancalade, Rajeev Talwani, Jeannie Lee Novak. 2nd row: Mitsuyo Clark, Sam, Waymon Hobdy, Emile Houndonougbo, Jerod Dien, Andre Hargnani (observer, principal of Critical Design high school), Beverly Goldin. Bottom: Erin Shaw, Jihie Kim, Laila Hasan (observer, Faculty in USC Rossier school of education), Teri Klass