Kids are using games like Minecraft and Farmville in their daily lives, so it’s only natural that teachers and administrators have followed suit, bringing game-based learning into the classroom. Tim Edwards of STEM Connector moderated a group of developers, educators, parents, and students who talked about the advantages of interactive education on Aug. 25.

Nigel Nisbet, vice president of content creation at the MIND Research Institute, brought his information about the MathMINDs movement, including a National K-12 Game-a-thon and Math Fairs.

Games provide a type of immersion that replicates real-world work, Nisbet says, as well as allowing students to learn by failing.

Students in the United States need to become more comfortable with math in particular, he says. At present, math is something of a cultural blind spot.

“Nationally we need to provide rich experiences for all students, not just in school, but also when they’re out of school. We also have, to some extent, a cultural issue with mathematics. It’s okay to say ‘oh, I’m not a math person.’”

However, that shouldn’t be okay. Games provide immersion, which lets students learn by doing and creating. This is also the modus operandi behind the Game-a-thon competition, which tasks children with designing educational games of their own.

“The best way to be really good at something is to actually teach it,” says Nisbet.

Finance is another cultural blind spot. Eileen Buckley of the PricewaterhouseCoopers youth education efforts and corporate responsibility team talked about the company’s $190 million multiyear commitment to financial education for kids, including a game-based interactive program created in concert with MIND, which will be available in 2016.

Teachers see the benefits of game-based learning, too. Shannon Duncan, a sixth grade math and science teacher at McPherson Magnet School in California, said that utilizing popular games like Minecraft helps kids understand that there is math and education in the things they do in leisure. Teachers at her school give kids challenges to do activities such as building the White House using Minecraft blocks, teaching both history, civics, and math through a game with which students are familiar.

“Even though they’re using math skills,” Duncan said, “they’re doing something they love.”

“My students began the school year asking if we’re going to participate in the Game-a-thon,” said Becky Renegar, a gifted intervention specialist at Piqua City Schools in Ohio.

“It’s something that’s definitely been a motivating factor for them to participate in. I find that the creativity involved in game design and making the video for the Game-a-thon has really, definitely motivated my students to think about ways of incorporating math into real life applications,” she continued.

Gaming also allows for flexibility for students. They can work at a level appropriate to their own development, and, Renegar says, “The mere act of designing and following through with a project really gives them the opportunity to develop operational skills that will help them later in life.”

Students Kedar Narayan, 6, and Gemma Kushen, 12, both designed their own games this year. Narayan created his own interactive book, and his mother Uma chronicles his work at the blog Little Code Ninja. Kushen is last year’s winner of the MIND Game-a-thon, in which she created an educational game using Farmville as inspiration.

“It would help to look at children as problem-solvers and not as people who need to be taught everything,” said Uma.

Kedar’s parents encouraged him to make his own games after he showed interest in popular titles. Although he expresses that he still wants to play games like Lego Star Wars, programming has also become part of the fun.

“I love catching bugs. Bugs are like rotten eggs. And rotten eggs make your code stink.”

The MIND Research Institute created the ST Math game to teach students from elementary to high school. Image credit: MIND Research Institute

Kushen says that math isn’t her favorite subject, even though it’s the one in which she most excels. Designing a game helped her learn by doing, though. “The obvious thing is that I started out knowing nothing about coding except the basics, like how it was supposed to work ... I was learning to code as I was coding the game.”

“Kids are already involved online,” says Renegar. “Having a presence in what they’re already doing, making things relevant to what their interests are. As Gemma was talking about before, a lot of kids are already playing Farmville.”

Journalist Greg Toppo, author of a book on educational gaming called “The Game Believes In You,” became interested in the subject when he had a conversation with his daughter. Books weren’t a big part of her life, but her generation became more attached to video games.

“One of the things that was a real surprise to me,  because I worked on this book through four years was the field is very different now than when I started reporting on this book …. as I was getting to the end of the reporting I would meet people pretty much every day who were doing amazing work, but I couldn’t cram them into the book because it was too late.”

The increasing familiarity with the medium comes from the fact that more and more adults are gamers themselves.

Toppo warned people not to see game-based learning as “a miracle worker,” though. Expecting it to solve every problem in education, he said, will lead to abandonment. It must work hand in hand with traditional education.

“The amount of engagement shown by my students is drastically increasing when they interact through play rather than completing, say, a worksheet,” says Renegar. “Online games are great for them because they’re proving them with instant feedback.”

Toppo thinks that game-based learning is going to grow as more teachers tell their peers about their successes. Both Narayahn and Kushen plan to continue to build games.

“I think that for a lot of kids – not me included, because I like learning – but for a lot of kids game-based learning is a much more effective way to teach them and keep them engaged,” Kushen says. “I know a lot of people don’t like reading, or even if they do like reading they don’t have enough stamina for reading or, basically, school. Almost every single kid doesn’t like school. And I think connecting what they do when they have free time with what they’d actually like to do and what everyone else wants them to do is a very good way to get them to do it.”

Gaming helps kids build intuition and creativity along with math skills, Nisbet said. “They own the learning. It’s something that they have done, not something that is being done to them.”