Video Games Can Educate, But Only With the Right Controls

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NSMI logoNSMI logo[This guest post was written by Tom Luce, CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative and a former assistant secretary of Education.]

Trading in text books for game consoles may sound like a childhood fantasy, but it’s turning into reality in some U.S. classrooms. Leaving their flashcards in a drawer, some educators are pulling out Wiis to teach statistics, laptops to engage students in game design, and other video games to instruct our children in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

On one level, there’s an inspired sense of symmetry in using today’s technology to teach the next generation of programmers, engineers, innovators, and designers who will create tomorrow’s advancements. (It’s akin to Hemingway using Poe’s work when learning to write.)

Though video games can play a helpful role in advancing STEM programs, they are not a silver bullet. The quality of education, especially in the sciences, hinges on content training for teachers. Even good ideas and the best intentions can crumble without solid math and science content to support them — a concept the White House has embraced.

Through his “Educate to Innovate” campaign paired with opportunities like “America’s Next Top Energy Innovator” contest, President Obama is helping to highlight the importance of improving STEM literacy in order to equip youth in the U.S. to compete in the global workforce of our emerging knowledge economy. Video games can certainly play a role in this. Yet, without adequately trained teachers, all of the gizmos and gadgets in the world won’t help our classrooms.

The Oregon TrailThe Oregon Trail

Screenshot from "The Oregon Trail" (fair use)

The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) already works to inspire and prepare teachers and students by bringing together the public and private sectors. We have the strong support of private donors such as Exxon Mobil Corporation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation in partnership with school districts and universities around the country. NMSI finds programs with quantifiable data proving they work and then makes those programs available to more American students. We have boosted the number of high school students taking college-level math and science classes and increased the number of college students who want to become math and science teachers.

So while students will continue to benefit from the lessons learned by choosing “banker” over “blacksmith” in modern-day equivalents to classic educational video games like The Oregon Trail, this continued development has always been and will always be necessarily buttressed by revolutionary education reform programs such as those supported by NMSI.

(After all, someone has to explain to adults the physics lessons entailed in a game of Angry Birds.)

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