Math for America + Killer Snails!


We were delighted to run a workshop for 30 of Math for America’s master teachers titled “What's in a Game? Games as a Tool for Teaching Science!” Through a pre-event survey and participants’ discussion, we learned that more than 70% of our participants already used games like Jeopardy and Kahoot in their classes, but wanted to learn about more options, and what they could be doing to get the most out of those games. 

Our discussion started with an observation: In big, complex, AAA-games like Red Dead Redemption, Spore, Assassin’s Creed, or Animal Crossing: New Horizons, people can spend hours on very complex missions and tasks. Players report learning about topics like ancient civilizations and plant genetics as a result of their gaming, purely out of their enjoyment of the challenge and own curiosity about the game’s world. This observation has spawned a lot of academic research into what makes games so motivating, and how to make games that intentionally lead to great experiences and strong learning outcomes for students. 

One of the keys to game design in education is to make sure the game mechanic – the actions that a player can do, and what happens in the game as a result – is aligned with the learning mechanic – the pattern of behavior that forms the essential learning activity that is repeated throughout a game (Plass et al., 2013). After analyzing the game mechanics in different kinds of games, we talked about how games can be designed to achieve different learning outcomes. More examples of games showcased learning objectives from Bloom’s Taxonomy like remembering information, applying rules, and creating hypotheses (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). 

Participants then split up into groups based on subject matter and grade band to try designing their own games. Examples like a transcription & translation relay, adapting March Mammal Madness to highlight finch beaks’ adaptations to different food sources, and a chemistry equation-balancing game emerged from the teachers’ discussions. 

Throughout the conversation, we shared research-based recommendations for how to get the most benefit from games in classrooms, including thinking about when the game is being used (to introduce ideas, as practice, or as an assessment?), using competition and collaborative groups to encourage student sharing and clarifying ideas for each other, and building in time after the game to reflect on what the different elements of the game represented, discussing how and why different strategies might work, and what the game got right about the science, versus where the game designers might have taken creative liberties. 

Thanks to the teachers for providing such a lively discussion, and sharing your ideas! 

Anderson, L.W. (Ed.), Krathwohl, D.R. (Ed.), Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Complete edition). New York: Longman.

Plass, J. L., Homer, B. D., Kinzer, C. K., Chang, Y. K., Frye, J., Kaczetow, W., Isbister, K., & Perlin, K. (2013). Metrics in simulations and games for learning. In M. S. El-Nasr, A. Drachen, & A. Canossa (Eds.), Game analytics: Maximizing the value of player data (pp. 297–729). New York, NY: Springer.