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Image from student game created through “Building Systems from Scratch”

Increasingly, young students who are trained and equipped with essential computing skills are at an advantage to compete and succeed in today’s modern, technology-dependent world. To help these students meet such demands, and succeed in both the classroom and eventually the workforce, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has developed a STEM + Computing (STEM+C) Partnerships program, which addresses the urgent need to prepare K-12 students in essential computational skills and competencies. The NSF program partners with research universities and organizations from all across the country – and one of these STEM+C projects is happening close to home for the Northeastern community.

As a STEM+C project, TERC, Inc., in collaboration with Northeastern University and Cambridge, Newton, and other local Public School Districts is working to develop and study an education program that integrates computing into middle school Earth systems science. The project, Building Systems from Scratch, interweaves the development of computer skills into science game design and content learning. It aims to develop skills among diverse groups of young people in two crucial fields central to national, and even global, interest, while creating a learning environment where young people learn thinking from a systems perspective.

Not surprisingly, this undertaking has managed to keep Northeastern post-docs Amy Hoover and Jackie Barnes, in addition to all those working on it, busy over the past two years. Jackie and Amy have been working alongside Gillian Puttick (Principal Investigator) and Eli Tucker-Raymond (coPI) from TERC and Casper Harteveld and Gillian Smith (coPIs) from CAMD to explore how to effectively blend computational experiences with game design and climate science learning in 8th grade classrooms. The project is based on the idea that when young people build games, they construct knowledge at the same time.

Image from student-created game

Jackie, whose expertise and background is in the learning sciences and designing educational games, has been focusing on the qualitative elements of the project and has played a key role in building the curriculum and exploring the variations of topics and genres of the games.

“It has been very interesting and rewarding to have the opportunity to actually work in the classrooms with the teachers and students,” explained Jackie. “Being on the ground, I have seen trends emerge that have challenged me, and the rest of the team, to think about how our initial assumptions may or may not have been correct.”

Amy, on the other hand, lives and breathes in the computer science world, working on the technical side of the project, and exploring questions like, what is the design process and what does it mean? She collects and examines quantitative metrics, like what the students clicked on and interacted with during the course of each game.

“Working on this project has been both fulfilling and eye-opening,” said Amy as she reflected on the experience so far and looked forward to the next phase of the project. “I have enjoyed being able to help tackle such a fundamental challenge as how to teach computational skills to students at a young age, and to measure the effectiveness of doing so through games.”

Image from student-created game

While the 8th graders do have the opportunity to play games as part of the Building Systems from Scratch curriculum, the majority of their energy is focused on building them using Scratch, a visual programming language geared toward beginners. The project develops and tests whether students can better learn systems thinking and climate science by building games than by direct instruction or student inquiry alone.

“We conjecture that building games will have positive outcomes on student learning as games are complex systems themselves and it requires a deep understanding on the part of the creator about the topic to represent this into a game format, especially if the purpose of this game is to educate others about this topic,” said Casper to explain why building games may be beneficial. “As designing educational games is very hard, even for professional developers, there is an important question on how we can best support students in this effort without taking away their creative freedom or the necessary challenge for them to learn.”

As the school year now comes to a close, Amy and Jackie, with the team led by Casper and Gillian, will be spending the next few months focusing on outcomes. They will be reading and analyzing the evaluations that both students and teachers took at the end of the curriculum. These results will hopefully highlight important knowledge for moving forward, like how the teachers thought the activity went and how well the students grasped important course topics from the games. We look forward to staying tuned to the project’s next phases!

The video that describes some of the research was recently recognized in STEM for All’s 2017 Video Showcase with both the Facilitator’s Award and Presenter’s Award. Check it out here.

About TERC
TERC is a not-for-profit institute founded in 1965, which is internationally recognized for its work in (i) advancing creative and integrated uses of technology in education, (ii) strengthening science, mathematics, and technology education with innovative curriculum and teacher enhancement program, (iii) developing imaginative tools (software and hardware) for students of all ages, (iv) innovative programs in earth and environmental science, and (v) increasing equitable opportunities for female, disadvantaged, and disabled learners. Each year, TERC’s programs and products reach more than 3.5 million students in the United States and abroad.