Nintendo Labo kits include DIY buildable cardboard pieces that kids (and adults) can integrate with the Joy-Con controllers of the Switch to create interactive playsets. Examples in the Variety Kit include a fishing rod, a piano, and a remote controlled car. They’re powered by the Toy-Con Garage software, which introduces basic programming language to a wide audience.
The Institute of Play is building a full-fledged curriculum for teachers on using Nintendo Labo in the classroom. The company is made up of educators, researchers, and game designers.
“We are always on the lookout for new tools and technologies that combine the best of learning with the spirit of play, and in Nintendo Labo we found an inspiring and innovative approach in both areas,” said Arana Shapiro, Co-Executive Director of the Institute of Play. “Teachers in the pilot program are already seeing the natural fit for Nintendo Labo in the classroom, and now we can bring that dynamic to schools across the country.”
A pilot program will initially roll out to schools in the New York area. Nintendo and the Institute of Play will use these classes to develop a teacher guide and lesson plans for using Nintendo Labo to teach programming and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math). The Nintendo Labo Teacher Guide will be available for free later this fall.
After the pilot program is complete, the Nintendo Labo Classroom Program will expand to 100 schools across the country. Each school will be provided with Switch systems and Nintendo Labo: Variety Kits, as well as the teacher guide. The program will run through the full school year.
The program is also being offered in Canada through Actua, Canada’s leading education-outreach organization for STEAM.
“The ingenuity of Nintendo Switch brings Nintendo Labo to life to provide a fun way for kids to explore basic STEAM topics together and be entertained while building a fundamental understanding of the technology behind them,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America, President. “We hope our programs in the United States and Canada encourage kids to explore, tinker, problem-solve and, in the process, get excited about design and technology – all while having fun.”
Likewise, a startling 100% of young women who were already in STEM degrees identified themselves as gamers. The study shows that encouraging gaming for adolescent girls is likewise encouraging them to consider education and careers in STEM.
The research was funded by the British Academy and led by Dr. Anesa Hosein. Dr. Hosein is Program Director of PhD in Higher Education at Surrey and self-identifies as a “geek gamer.”
“Despite the pioneering work of people like Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Surrey’s own Daphne Jackson, the first female Physics professor, there are still too few female STEM role models for young women,” said Dr. Hosein. “Our research shows that those who study STEM subjects at degree level are more likely to be gamers, so we need to encourage the girl gamers of today to become the engineering and physics students and pioneers of tomorrow.”
Per the study, Dr. Hosein recommends that any young woman with a pre-disposition toward gaming should be empowered to make the connection between her hobby and the adjacent career fields. She suggests attending gaming panels and meeting STEM role models, and for educators to include gaming as part of STEM curriculum.
“It therefore makes sense, in the short-term, that educators seeking to encourage more take up of STEM subjects should target girl gamers, as they already may have a natural interest in these subjects,” said Dr. Hosein. “We need to get better at identifying cues early to recognize which girls may be more interested in taking up STEM degrees.”
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In a lengthy blog post Terry Myerson, Executive VP for Windows and devices at Microsoft, unveiled a brand new operating system. Windows 10 S, built upon Windows Pro, is designed specifically to be used by students in the classroom. Windows 10 S is launching this Summer.
“As part of our mission at Microsoft, we believe technology can be used as a tool to empower students and teachers to create the world of tomorrow,” writes Myerson. Myerson notes what many in tech and education have realized – tech skills and knowledge are woefully under-taught in schools. Computer science skills are increasingly in demand and continue rising with each passing year.
Back in my day we had Macintosh computers in the computer lab, but these days Microsoft Windows dominates in schools. Windows 10 S is a more closed system where all applications are acquired and run through the Windows Store. This helps streamlines performance but potentially limits what programs students can use, which has already drawn some criticism:
Unity 3D blocked!
Unreal Engine blocked!
Photoshop (the real application) – blocked! Blender – blocked!
Microsoft Visual C++ – blocked!
Windows 10 S does allow any teacher or admin to switch Windows 10 S to Windows 10 Pro, which allows them to install any app. But it’s designed to keep students in a contained and structured environment, which for K-12 may not be such a bad idea.
For college students and older, Microsoft has announced the Surface Laptop. The new tablet-like device is powered with Windows 10 S and boasts up to 14.5 hours of battery life. It features a 13.5″ screen and an i7 core processor. The Surface Laptops start at $999 and will launch on June 15. It is now available for pre-order.
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.
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.”
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.
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.