“What do you think is causing pollution in the city?” “Factories.” “Which factories are causing pollution?” “Coal Factories.” “So to reduce pollution, what would you do?” “Close ‘em down.” “But then you have to think about, how are you going to get energy?”
Seventh grade engineering teacher Petrut Ababei is helping his student Danny Jimenez think his way through an early attempt to figure out SimCityEDU, an educational video game designed by the non-profit GlassLab. Ababei is beta testing the game at Lazear Charter Academy in Oakland, California.
SimCityEDU is built on the code for the popular city building game SimCity and has the same graphics. The difference is that SimCityEDU asks players to accomplish environmental science missions that are based on the Common Core State Standards.
GlassLab developed the game as a progression of six distinct missions that correlate with one another, scaffolding the player’s understanding of both the game and science topics. The first level is fairly simple, but new tools are added at each progressing level, as well as more complicated concepts, such as where energy comes from and how it relates to pollution. Originally, developers expected teachers to assign missions in the order they were created — from one to six — but after observing several beta-testers, they’ve seen that educators are picking and choosing parts of the game that fit with their curriculum.
Ababei, for example, had his class skip from level one to level six with only a short introduction before they jumped into playing the game. “My approach was based on not underestimating their ability to explore and click around on their own because I think kids are pretty good at that,” Ababei said. He wants his students to explore and build the problem as they go along.
“They were able to be very quick and very responsive to the feedback they were getting in the game based on their actions,” Ababei said. “That was pretty impressive and I get excited. I think those are the good moments in teaching, when you’re like, ‘I didn’t teach you that, but you figured it out on your own.’”
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Ababei chose to jump ahead to the most complex mission in SimCityEDU because it directly relates to an ongoing project the class is doing on green energy. Students are learning how different types of energy are generated and how that affects pollution levels. Those concepts help provide real-world context for their culminating project — building a wind turbine and measuring its energy output.
But jumping ahead to level six, which is called “It’s Complicated,” left many kids puzzled, not sure what tools were available to them for solving the mission. So they just clicked around trying to figure it out. Some students immediately picked up on a few simple ways to reduce pollution while making sure that residents of their city had enough power to operate businesses and electricity at home. One student even discovered the “zoning tool” which allowed him to rezone areas for industrial or residential use, although he wasn’t really sure what that meant. Other students appeared to be clicking around aimlessly, but kept trying different tactics that would help them complete the mission after being prompted to go back and try again. Many students tried to help one another understand the game, but at the end of 30 minutes, a good portion of the class had checked out.
Meanwhile, Ababei and another science coach walked through the class, asking questions that would help students answer their own questions, and offering help to students as they needed it.
After the class’s experiment with level six, Ababei found out that level three mission in SimCityEDU also deals with the concept of energy, but on a much simpler level. For the game developer, this was useful knowledge during the beta phase.
“What it’s telling me as a developer, is I need to improve the visibility of the professional development and the lesson plans so you don’t have to spend more than two minutes to figure out: ‘OK here’s where I want to focus on,’” said Jessica Lindl, GlassLab’s general manager. She was observing how Lazear students played the game to improve on the product before it goes to market in early November. “I need a much easier view of quick scaffolding of what’s in each mission,” she said.
Lindl also decided to keep the game “unlocked,” meaning teachers can move around between missions and levels in a way that suits their instruction goals, rather than keeping them at specific levels. Lindl says as she’s observed teachers she’s been impressed at the creative ways they’re using the game and she doesn’t want to limit that freedom by prescribing the order of missions.
That said, the scaffolding embedded in the game is an important element of the formative assessment tool that GlassLab has been testing with SimCityEDU. “We actually do have as part of our formative assessment their ability to discover and understand the tools informing us on their ability to apply problem solving,” Lindl said. Every click and hover that a student makes in the game is a data point towards assessing how well she is using critical thinking and problem solving skills to gather information. “It’s almost like learning the game is part of the experience,” Lindl said.
“Not only are we teaching them about systems in a very fun way, but we’re also teaching them about perseverance and that failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” said Francis Abbatantuono, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) coach for Lazear’s parent charter company Education for Change. “The point for me is they’re trying something, they’re seeing themselves fail, and they’re going back and trying something different. And hopefully that transitions to the game, the class, their life,” he said.
Whether or not students have played video games before could make a big difference in how well they play this game. Some kids have extensive experience playing complicated games like SimCity that have narratives, multiplayer options and lots of tools. Others have only played simple mobile games. And still others don’t play video games, which could affect how intuitive the game feels.
At Lazear, 95 percent of the students are low-income, receiving free or reduced price lunch. Student access to technology and gaming outside of school is varied. Lindl said she’d like to develop a way to identify each player at the beginning with a “gaming persona,” that could help inform assessment.
GlassLab will make the game available to the public on November 7, distributing it through established vendors SMS Tech Solutions and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. At the same time, the organization is awaiting an SRI study to be released next spring evaluating how effective the game’s formative assessment tools really are.