Game On!

Philadelphia middle-schoolers learned science while playing a game—a game they designed themselves.

At the 2016 Philadelphia Science Festival, a massive science carnival in the city, youth from surrounding Philadelphia neighborhoods were doing more than just attending. They were debuting the games they had created from scratch about fossils, plants, or animals. Some were nervous about showing their brainchild, letting a team leader do most of the talking. Eventually though, they’d be drawn in, jumping in to clarify a rule or explain how to outsmart an opponent. The students, after all, were the experts.

These students had not started out as natural game designers, but by the end of a 16-week workshop at local afterschool locations, they could walk the walk and talk the talk of a game designer. Some had designed board games, others had designed games that centered on physical activity, á la Red Light, Green Light. Along the way, they developed a richer understanding of science and honed their writing and literacy skills.

“We wanted to encourage youth to create, prototype, and play games in order to better understand the scientific process—and science in general,” the partners wrote in their final report on the project.

The idea behind the game design project started with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and the Philadelphia Writing Project. Later, the two organizations were joined by Mighty Writers, a writing program with branches across the city, and Steppingstone Scholars. The latter links Temple University to Duckrey Elementary in North Philadelphia.

Over the course of two years, the partners worked to develop a game-making curriculum that educators in out-of-school spaces could use. They called it Game On! They piloted the curriculum in three sites and refined it based on feedback.

Game On! led middle schoolers through the steps of making a game based on the themes of fossils, plants, or animals. The kids examined the nature of gaming and the elements of game design. They might play a game and then change a rule to see what happened. Or they might rearrange the game to create a new outcome. With the fundamentals in hand, they then visited the science museum for inspiration.

I loved watching the minds work, the revisions and pride in the final outcome—and all the while we were learning about science.”

The students were encouraged to incorporate the physical community into their games, so they spent time snapping pictures of local gardens, for example, or researching insects and animals found in their community.

While the youth learned about science, they honed their writing skills by analyzing game designs as texts that have audiences, purposes, and structures. They also read and wrote about their games. Finally, they developed public speaking skills when communicating how to play their games and offering feedback to others.

Finally, the big day arrived—it was time to debut their creations at the carnival. Would the games work? Would people like them? What parts worked better than others? The youth would soon know the answers.

The students arrived with some trepidation but soon warmed to the crowd. As for the crowd, they had a blast. They dove into the science challenges the games created, including a dance-off when they answered a science question incorrectly. They also learned something new about their city. “One game had a neighborhood theme with pictures around the board,” said co-teacher and technology head Ronald Houston. “When you landed on that picture, you answered a science question in order to advance and you got learn a little bit about the area as well.”

The educators learned something as well. Partnering with others brought new ways of thinking and doing things, which spurred their own creativity, the educators said.

As an educator,” said Houston, “I’m used to making things go in a very orderly and organized fashion. During this process, the idea of free-flowing creativity and not knowing the final product during the process was refreshing. It created a new level of excitement for both teacher and student. I loved watching the minds work, the revisions and pride in the final outcome—and all the while we were both learning about science.”

To ensure that others can benefit from this project, the team developed an online curriculum for others to use, along with other information and materials necessary to invent and play games infused with science content.