TEALS Uses Tech Volunteers, Video Games to Teach Computer Science

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Computer Science is a vastly under served industry. Given how interconnected technology has become, all industries are looking at the next generation of workers to be well versed in Computer Science and engineering.

An organization called TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) works at the high school level to provide tech-savvy volunteers, curriculum for teachers, and computer lab lesson plans. The goal is to empower teachers and schools to provide Intro level Computer Science courses to prepare young people for an increasingly tech-focused world. And they do it using video games.

I attended a TEALS panel at PAX South earlier this year to learn more about their philosophy and process. The panel was hosted by Brett Wortzman, Instruction and Training Manager and John Jannone, Regional Manager for South Central.

“We help build sustainable high school computer science programs,” said Jannone. “Because of how hard it is for teachers to learn how to code, and how much money people in tech can make not doing education, we decided to pair them off.”

TEALS brings volunteers from the tech industry to partner with schools and teachers to help teach the unique games-based TEALS Computer Science programs.

TEALS has been operating since 2009 and is supported through Microsoft Philanthropies. Jannone mentioned that they don’t use or promote any Microsoft products in their courses so as not to create conflicts of interest: “We couldn’t do this job effectively if people thought we trying to sell something.”

Leveling Up Gaming in Education

Why use games to teach computer science? Jannone referenced a 2012 TED talk by Daphne Bavelier, a college professor and research scientist who studies games and their affects on our brains. Her findings turned a lot of pre-conceived stereotypes of gaming on its head: Gamers have better attention and sharper vision than non-gamers. They can also resolve visual conflicts and process mental problems quickly. In fact, 10 hours a week of playing action games can improve cognitive functions by a noticeable margin.

TEALs sorted through a hundred thousand studies that involved gaming. “Asking are games good or are they bad in education is no longer the question we should be asking,” said Jannone.

TEALS uses three approaches in using gaming in education: Engagement, Motivation, and Mindset.

“Students tend to be more engaged when there are gaming activities in the classroom,” said Wortzman. Gaming offers a low barrier to entry. Students are more comfortable in a gaming environment, and it promotes active learning. “We can sort of ‘trick’ students. We can use an entertaining veneer over what we would consider boring topics.”

For motivation, gaming is an obvious benefit. “There’s an immediate feedback loop in most gaming activities,” said Wortzman. “There’s an opportunity to very quickly and very definitively find out if they’ve been successful or not. In school students wait hours, days, even weeks to get a grade, and they still might not know how well they did.”

Gaming provides intrinsic motivation, with rewards in the games themselves, like earning points or gaining treasure. Wortzman also suggested using classroom leaderboards to incite healthy competition to promote students to keep going.

The gaming mindset works well when adapted to the classroom. “[Students] are used to being successful in games, but they’re also used to having to try a few times,” said Wortzman. “They’re not used to that in the classroom. There are a lot of students that believe they should get it right the first time and if they can’t they should just give up.” The acceptance of failure and repetition that gaming provides is an important concept that can be applied to classroom learning.

civilization vi

Not every game can be a great educational tool. The panel outlined four levels of using games as a framework for teaching tools.

  • Level 0: Coincidental Learning
    • The game wasn’t designed to be an educational activity, you just happen to learn something from it.
    • “I played Civilization and along the way I learning something about the ancient Aztecs,” explained Wortzman.
  • Level 1: Game-influenced Learning
    • Also known as “game-ified learning.” Games of this level are often used as assessment or review of learning that has happened prior to playing the game.
  • Level 2: Game-supported Learning
    • Games are combined with learning objectives and other activities (such as writing assignments).
  • Level 3: Game-based Learning
    • The game stands on its own as a complete learning tool. This is the ultimate goal for using games in education.

Design, Create, Play

TEALS does more than just provide games to play. Classrooms also design and create their own games as part of the Computer Science curriculum. Design, Creation, and Play all contain their own levels depending on how effectively the game content is used in the classroom.

“In our Intro Computer Science course, most of our projects are game assignments: recreation, riffs, or watered down versions of traditional well-known games, such as a Super Mario Bros. platformer, Pong, and Zork text adventure,” said Wortzman. “They are creating these games as part of our project-based curriculum. They are learning and practicing their programming skills by designing and implementing these games.”

redstone

TEALS uses a custom-built Minecraft mod as a learning tool. A former TEALS student took the Minecraft Forge project and added extensions and scripts, letting students create their own objects. It’s a good tool for teaching students how to operate within third party software that they didn’t create, which is how a lot of professional game design operates.

“I’ve been using Minecraft educationally for the last six years,” said Jannone. “There’s curriculum, there’s inspiration, there’s YouTube videos filled with Redstone circuitry. People make functional computers and Pong games using nothing but the mechanics of Minecraft. It’s an amazing tool. That sandbox environment encourages kids to be more exploratory and experimental.”

Game-based learning doesn’t have to be restricted to programming in Computer Science class. One example Wortzman used was for English or Language Arts. Students would read Lord of the Rings, and their assignment would be to create a character from the novels within World of Warcraft. What class would Frodo be and why? What equipment would they have? It’s an example of game-supported learning (Level 2) by using World of Warcraft as a book report.

Games can also be used as a springboard to teaching bigger concepts in a variety of school subjects. Board game Settlers of Catan can be a case study in economics and geographical dependency and sociology. The simple mobile game Angry Birds can be used to discuss parabolic motion in Physics class. These kind of games can easily be applied as Level 1 and Level 2 teaching tools. They would still require a teacher to bridge the connection between the game and the lesson plan.

kerbal space program vehicle assembly

For a true Level 3 game-learning experience, see Kerbal Space Program. “You can learn a ton about gravity, orbital dynamics and astrophysics just by playing Kerbal Space Program,” said Worzman. “If I were teaching a class on that, I could just tell you ‘Go play KSP for 6 weeks – you’re going to learn everything you need to learn.'”

For an in-house example, Wortzman created a game called Space Battle. “This is a programming game a bit like [board game] Robo Rally, except that you have to lay out all your programs at the beginning, and then not touch anything for the rest of the game.” Students program their out spaceships to include in the game, then gather around a projector to watch how their ship performs based on the programs they implemented. “They watch and scream and teachers three doors down tell us to be quiet because they’re giving a final exam – true story,” said Wortzman.

Once we accept games as learning tools we can begin to use them to enhance lesson plans, motivate students, and integrate gameplay and mechanics into lessons as outlined above. Even just using games in the simplest ways, like creating the Lord of the Rings characters in World of Warcraft, is hugely motivating to young people in which gaming is a normal background of their lives, and can make classroom education far more engaging and fun.

Today TEALS programs can be found in 329 high school classes in 225 schools in 25 states. Over 750 volunteers from 400 different companies help bring engaging computer science lessons to schools. TEALS is always looking for volunteers from tech industry professionals, teachers, students, and anyone who’s interested in helping support education and promoting games for learning.