Video Games & Learning: Teachers & Developers Write the Future Together

When I taught high school English, I had a mailbox in the staff lounge in a wall full of identical little rectangular mailboxes. About twice a year, I would find something useful in my mailbox. But the other 178 school days, I only found mountains of junk mail — flyers for expensive digital subscription services or glossy magazines brimming with overpriced textbooks that would be obsolete before they arrived. Soon, the junk mail felt as identical as the rows of little rectangular mailboxes.

That mountain of junk mail represented hundreds of companies and institutions that wanted to buy space in my classroom but were completely out of touch with the day-to-day reality of my environment. At Wisconsin Public Television Education, we don’t create products for classrooms or take a one-size-fits-all approach to education; we create personal, ongoing relationships with K-12 teachers throughout the state. Our projects – including Wisconsin Hometown Stories, Student Reporting Labs, Vel Phillips: Dream Big Dreams and The Ways – begin, and end, with the voices of teachers and students.

Wisconsin Public Television Education’s commitment to teachers is shared by our friends at Field Day Labs, an educational gaming studio based in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and helmed by researcher David Gagnon.

I recently attended Field Day Labs’ kickoff event for their 2017 Material Sciences Game Design Fellowship (supported by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Material Research Science and Engineering Center). The kickoff event was held just as Field Day Labs began the process of adding new additions to The Yard Games, a slate of cost-free online games to get kids thinking like scientists.

The day-long event mixed work and play, including a public lunch and panel discussion. During the event, Gagnon and his team worked with 10 middle school science teachers to create game concepts that fill needs they see in the classroom, and that will eventually become new Yard Games after several iterations of design and classroom testing. It’s an approach that honors the knowledge and expertise of classroom teachers and aligns closely with the work we strive to do at Wisconsin Public Television Education.

Above: Madison Country Day School science teacher Jake Eaton.

Jake Eaton, a science teacher at Madison Country Day School, came to the fellowship program excited about a new world of possibilities. “My wife works at the Geology Museum,” he said. “The thought that there could be something like VR [virtual reality] where you put on the goggles and all the sudden the dinosaur is a dinosaur and not just a skeleton. That whole notion of what’s out there, I thought that was so neat.” According to Jake, video games “can help to create an environment in which failure is rewarded.”

Kromery Middle School science teacher Sarah Sprangers shared Jake’s excitement, saying “I think oftentimes, especially in school, games are seen as incentives or rewards or bonus activities but are not always valued for being powerful learning experiences in and of themselves. This day challenged this notion and demonstrated that video games are not only intrinsically motivating for students, but also opportunities for students to explore, interact, take risks and learn.”

Above: Kromery Middle School science teacher Sarah Sprangers.

Although not a gamer herself, Sarah was drawn to the Field Day fellowship for other reasons. “I am always looking for ways to learn and grow as an educator. While I’m not a gamer myself, I recognize that my role as a teacher is to engage my students and use their interests and experiences to inform my instructional practices.”

It was an inspiring day of collaboration that left me feeling hopeful—not just about the future of learning through video games, but about the capacity of working teachers to play the key role in building that future. All of us in the Wisconsin Public Television Education department are proud to be teachers, and proud to keep teachers and students at the heart of everything we do.

To learn more about projects like this or to get involved, sign up to be part of our network of Wisconsin educators!

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