Schools Pilot USC-Built Math Game Platform

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A new program developed by researchers in the University of Southern California is helping high school students strengthen their math skills and teaching them how to build complex computer games. GameDesk, created at USC's Viterbi School of Engineering's Integrated Media Systems Center, allows users to create math-oriented computer games with tools such as YoYoGames' GameMaker.

The goal of the pilot program, which will continue at least until the end of the spring semester, is to improve test scores and graduation rates at high-priority schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

GameDesk integrates technology, art, and mathematics into a game-building program designed to create opportunities for teens to learn while they create their own computer games. The program is capable of diagnosing skills levels to identify where students are weakest, then creating game-making lessons to address those critical areas. Students must learn to solve equations in order to build their games. In the course of that, they're also fulfilling standards-based educational requirements.

"Many of these kids have it tough and they feel like going to school is largely irrelevant to their daily lives," said Victor Lacour, associate director for games research at the center. "We needed to find some new approaches to classroom instruction that would get them excited and be more relevant culturally and educationally."

The program was first introduced in fall 2008 at Jordan High School to 15- and 16-year-old students, who gave it rave reviews. The students created a variety of games, such as "All City Drill" and "Car Crash Derby," using mathematical equations and science principles to turn their ideas into live action games. The math and science skills fulfill standards-based educational requirements. Based on lessons learned at Jordan High, the developers fine-tuned the program and introduced it in January 2009 at Crenshaw High School. The program, which is funded by a three-year grant, will also be introduced at a later date at a high school in Pomona.

David G. Brown, a Jordan High School teacher, reported a vast improvement in Jordan High School students' attitudes toward classroom instruction. "You should have seen the change in attitude when the students were introduced to game-building," he said. "I was amazed at how well they responded to the challenge and how interested they are in learning how to build their games.

"When they started doing something that was driven by their own ideas, they really got excited," he added. "They became empowered.... [T]hey started asking questions and wanted to know more."

Lacour and two USC graduate students provide classroom technical assistance several times a week for the program. Once the program caught on at Jordan High, the Integrated Media Systems Center team began planning part two, in which game teams would work with assigned content teachers in math, physics, history, geography, and other subjects to build an educational game.

"I have high expectations for GameDesk's positive influence on teaching and learning at Crenshaw High School," said Sylvia Rousseau, professor of clinical education at the USC Rossier School of Education and USC's representative in the Greater Crenshaw Educational Partnership, which has oversight of Crenshaw High.

"The value of the GameDesk class is that it integrates technology, art and mathematics to create opportunities to learn," she said. "These tasks result in real products created by students. The process of creating products is a major means of helping our students adopt identities as producers, not just consumers, particularly of technology. Hopefully, the school will continue creating opportunities for students to engage in product-based learning. Students will then carry perceptions of themselves as producers into other learning situations and into life."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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