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Video Games in the Classroom – Teaching the Scientific Method to Digital Natives

Much has been made of the need to better engage the current crop of students dubbed “digital natives.” This latest generation, having grown up immersed in technology, is deemed to have unique learning needs because of their extensive exposure to technology at such a young age.

For science teachers seeking to increase engagement with this group of learners, a research paper by Constance Steinkuehler and Sean Duncan offers an intriguing suggestion. In the “Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds” (pdf) set for publication next spring in the Journal of Science Education and Technology, the co-authors offer a net generation approach to teaching the scientific method.

Video Game Research

Clive Thompson, reporting for, summarizes the suggested method nicely. In an with Steinkuehler, a game researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Thompson notes that the professor essentially stumbled across the concept while playing the game Lineage.

Steinkuehler notes that at the time she was immersed in the game Lineage most of her guild members were teenage boys. The professor was impressed with how well these young men were able to figure out how to beat the game’s bosses.

Turns out the teenage boys were so into the game they were actually building Excel spreadsheets to record game information. The boys would record what potions affected the bosses and which attacks caused what damage.

In essence the boys were making a prediction as to how they might beat the game then recording the results of that prediction. Those results would create new ideas which in turn would be tested out. In addition, Steinkuehler noted that the teenagers were often arguing about the next trial as well as what might be the outcome of the effort.

As Steinkuehler points out, these young men were in fact practicing the fundamentals of science and implementing the basic aspects of the scientific method. As Thompson notes, Steinkuehler found her realization was both “fascinating and provocative.”

Virtual Worlds Can Teach Real World Applications
In essence, the fundamentals of science create rules and mathematical models to predict behaviors in the real world. On the flip side, video games offer virtual worlds that children spend countless hours attempting to understand.
In his piece, Thompson notes that games such as Lineage and World of Warcraft aren’t necessarily “real” world. But at the same time, the game creators have created a world based on fundamental consistencies.

Thompson writes, “the behavior of the environment and the creatures in it are governed by hidden and generally unchanging rules, encoded by the game designers. In the process of learning a game, gamers try to deduce those rules.”

One other point from Thompson centers on the overall disinterest in the scientific method for gamers.

“The (mostly) young people engaging in these science-like conversations are precisely the same ones who are, more and more, tuning out of science in the classroom.” Thompson goes on to add, “the situation is far worse for boys than girls.”

Reversing the Trend
Steinkuehler believes that “video games are the way to reverse” what is dubbed by Thompson as a “sorry trend.” Constances.orgThe professor insists that it is time for schools to embrace “games as places to show kids the value of scientific scrutiny.”

Two different components could make the suggestion possible. The first is a science teacher with an interest in gaming who knows the ins and outs of a game like Lineage or World of Warcraft. He or she could easily find concrete ways to make the game work as a teaching tool.

A second option is for one of these game companies to begin to employ an education division, one that actively seeks out information from both gamers and educators, then drafts written curriculum materials for teachers. This would seemingly enhance the gaming sales of industry leaders; in fact one company specializing in such a move could create a real market niche.

Ideal Would Be to Create Games around Science
Of course, a third option exists, one that would create games that offers science principals as the hidden rules that form the basis for the game. In their paper, the writers note two such options underway, River City and Quest Atlantis.

Amazon.comHowever, one possibility would be to create games based on some of the classic science fiction novels. Because many science fiction novels mix extensive scientific facts with a sense of “what if,” games based on those novels would form a unique way for introducing scientific concepts to students.

One such example would be to create a game based on the Rama spacecraft that served as the central components of an Arthur C. Clarke science fiction series. Using the approach suggested by Steinkeuhler to explore a virtual world where creatures live on the inside of a rotating cylinder (the Rama spacecraft) would be an exciting way to introduce many fundamental physics concepts while reinforcing the basics of the scientific method.

However, instead of waiting for such game options, science teachers would do well to heed the research of Steinkueler and Duncan to at least focus on the scientific method. With their summary, the two writers offer science teachers a whole new perspective on how to bring that singular concept to life in the classroom.


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