KU News Release

November 15, 2012
Contact: Mike Krings, KU News Service, 785-864-8860

Researchers land grant to design new, improved games for young learners

James Basham

Sean Smith

More Information

LAWRENCE — Researchers at the University of Kansas have found that students who do well in educational, web-based video games also do well in traditional academic achievement. Now, with the support of a National Science Foundation grant, they will be working with a gaming company to design and research a new series of video games to help all students, including learners who struggle and those with disabilities in science.

The NSF granted KU’s Center for Research on Learning and Filament Games of Madison, Wis., $500,000 for the two-year project. James Basham, assistant professor in special education, is the principal investigator, and Sean Smith, associate professor in special education, is the co-principal investigator. The project will design games based in the physical sciences and test their effectiveness with late elementary and middle school students of all abilities in school districts throughout the country.

The researchers are basing the work on a previous project that showed games were effective in supporting learning in the life sciences. The previous research showed that not only did students who scored highly in the games do well in traditional testing, but also struggling learners took well to the games, and even played them outside of class time.

“Even at home when they were not being assigned to do so, these students were playing the games, and getting their families involved,” Basham said of struggling learners in the previous project.

The researchers will continue to work with Filament Games, an educational gaming company, to develop the new products. In the previous study, they co-developed games such as “You Make Me Sick,” a title that allowed students to learn about bacteria and how it can infect people. Players were allowed to choose a different kind of bacteria and place it in an everyday setting, with the goal of making a person or host in the game sick. They could choose to place it in a hamburger left sitting out in the kitchen or in an old brick of cheese in the fridge, for example. If the game avatar handled or ate the infected items, and didn’t take precautions such as washing his hands and became infected, the students were awarded points, all the while learning about standard scientific concepts.

“We’re taking them to an everyday environment that they can identify with. The games are purposely designed to link them with the kids’ cognition and what they can generalize,” Basham said.

The new games will continue to be developed through the concept of Universal Design for Learning, a framework that guides learning in sciences in adaptable ways for students of all learning styles. The framework, commonly referred to as UDL, recognizes individuals learn in unique ways and allows multiple methods of representation, expression and engagement. The games support this by allowing multiple ways for students to absorb a lesson and demonstrate what they have learned.

“Think of it as a filter,” Smith said of Universal Design for Learning and its application in both the games and education in general. “You have to be able to read, and demonstrate you can read, to be able to play, or have other critical learning skills to play and learn and these games can adapt to the skills of each learner. UDL is not an ivory tower idea; it’s not a KU idea. It has a place in all education.”

Over the two-year course of the grant, the researchers will work with Filament as the games are designed, then test them in schools and analyze the data to assess how well they helped students. They will work with game developers to share the research and develop new, better commercial products that support education in several stages in coming years.

Schools that would like to participate are encouraged to contact Basham by email. The games will not only demonstrate new ways for students to learn and express what they’ve learned, but new methods of instruction for teachers as well. Students who take part will take pre and post tests as well as play the games so the researchers can study the efficacy and value of the games in the learning process.

“The overall goal is to conduct sound research that shows how gaming can affect learning and achievement,” Basham said. “What we’d like to see is all kids improving, and all groups of learners, from students with disabilities, to struggling learners, English language learners and gifted students, all improving in their performance.”

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