Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Computer game camps meld math, imagination

Making learning seem like fun and games is hard work.

A team of DU professors is tackling that assignment with gusto by bringing together high school teachers and students this summer for an experiment in learning called Pixels, Programming, Pedagogy and Play. The six-week effort teaches students about math and science using computer games, and instructs teachers to teach about computer games.

“We want to increase the participation of American students in math and science,” says computer science Professor Scott Leutenegger, who helped develop the initiative with education adjunct Debra Austin and art Associate Professor Rafael Fajardo.

The camps, two weeks each, are part of a larger DU math and computer science initiative funded by a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The program targets teens who might be turned off by school but who are enthralled with today’s highly artistic computer games. Leutenegger says that teaming Austin — who earned her doctorate in education — with an art professor and a computer scientist, the camp explores new ways of learning that meld math and science with art and imagination.

“The project would not exist without the synthesis of all three of us,” he says.

Beginning June 18, the first class of 12 teachers was exposed to the language of computer programming. Leutenegger showed them how every action a game will take has to be written in computer code so the game knows how to react. Across the hall, Fajardo put the teachers to work building their own board games, randomly assigning them miniature figurines and telling them to design a game.

“I got a chicken and a nun,” one teacher noted. Another came up with a board game pitting a farmer against a duck trying to escape before it becomes dinner.

Fajardo says he’s trying to help teachers understand games and why they’re fun. They have to be absorbing, entertaining and escapist with some elements of contest or struggle that players must overcome. There is an art to the storytelling that must capture the player’s imagination.

“If you make a game that somebody wants to play again, that’s a good thing. If you make a game that somebody wants to share with someone else, that’s a super thing. If they ask to play again, that’s even better,” he told the class. “I’m asking you to be in the shoes of the student right now.”

Fajardo says that in addition to helping students want to learn about math and science, he wants to create a more diverse generation of game designers. Games are a reflection of modern culture, and currently about 90 percent of game designers are male, and 85 percent are white. Diversifying the field, by exposing more students to combination of math and science, will diversify the games that are out there, he says.

Until gaming became a multi-billion dollar industry, it wasn’t taken seriously by academics, Fajardo says. Meanwhile, he notes, a generation of students have grown up idolizing the game designers.

After the teachers’ camp concludes, about 25 high school girls will come to DU for two weeks, working with many of the teachers who just finished their own training. Then, another 25 or so boys will come to camp, again working with the teachers. By the end, Leutenegger says, DU will have directly reached out to an estimated 50 students, many who might not have otherwise considered college. And in addition, the University will have armed public school teachers with the tools to reach out to countless other students.

Montbello science teacher Jill Spivey says she joined the experimental DU camp to bring something new to the classroom.

“That’s my bent, to become more knowledgeable myself, to learn a little bit about how games are made and to hopefully engage my students,” she says.

For teachers, computer gaming is a real opportunity to teach math and science, Fajardo says. Technology has done the hardest part — capturing the students’ imagination. The rest is up to teachers.

Watch a video about the game camp.

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