Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Key to education: All fun and games, researchers say

Games aren’t just about fun and they aren’t just for kids, a panel of researchers told teachers gathered March 31 for the DU symposium “The Pedagogy of Innovation.”

The event included a panel discussion and an educational technology fair that exposed educators to the latest in high-tech classroom applications.

Among those applications are computer games, panelists said. They can unlock the secrets of mathematics, encourage critical thinking and problem solving, and push students to higher levels of achievement, from preschool to graduate school.

Each of the five panel members presented developments in computer game design and its integration into educational programs.

“This is where the communication is happening and where we should be educating,” said Scott Leutenegger, a DU computer science professor.

At DU, researchers are studying how computer gaming can help children as young as age 3 grasp the basics of mathematics, starting with counting.

Alvaro Arias, DU mathematics department chair, said current pedagogy focuses on goals such as teaching children to count but fail to ensure children grasp the concept of numbers and groups. Children may be able to count to 50 by rote, but they don’t understand the concept of the number four.

Arias has been working to develop games that can help teach the most basic elements of math to preschool children along with Toni Linder, a professor in the Morgridge College of Education.

Those first games may be ready for widespread use by September, he said.

“We’ll be teaching the teachers to use this,” Linder said. “The goal is not only to create these games, but to help teachers use them for assessment in the classroom.”

As students get older, activities advance from playing games to creating them.

Leutenegger presented the latest in computer gaming-based education with Debra Austin, a professor of lawyering process at the Sturm College of Law and an adjunct professor at the Morgridge College.

The two developed a computer gaming education program for middle and high school students along with Rafael Fajardo, a DU associate professor of art.

In addition to summer camps teaching students how to develop computer games, the program also educates teachers and shows them how to incorporate computer games in the classroom.

The program focuses on “humane games,” which are games that teach or raise awareness about important social issues. As students learn about gaming, they stretch their creative abilities, collaborate with others, and learn the basics of critical thinking, they told teachers in attendance.

But the benefits of gaming don’t stop at high school. If immersion into gaming has led students to higher education, they can continue their studies at increasingly advanced levels. Through a program called “scalable game design,” students will find themselves continuously challenged in more and more complex work, said Alex Repenning, a research professor in computer science at the University of Colorado.

Repenning says he has seen students intrigued by early gaming concepts push well beyond what is taught in the classroom, learning on their own advanced techniques and then teaching them to others. And as they progress, many of those game design skills transfer to scientific research tools such as advanced computer model forecasting.

But it all starts early, Arias said. There are numerous early literacy programs for young children that have government funding. Developing something similar for math and science is critical if students are to learn the problem solving skills of the future.

“These children will inherit global problems,” Austin said, “problems that will require critical thinking and innovative solutions involving international collaboration.”

The “Pedagogy in Innovation” symposium preceded the Bridges to the Future lecture, “Science, Technology and Education: Mapping the Future” and was presented by the Office of the Provost, DU’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Morgridge College of Education.

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