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How to Turn Digital Games Into a Fun Physical Learning Experience at School

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Kids in Elizabeth Forward's SMALLab use wands to interact with learning games projected on the floor. (AweSeven)

In order to take learning to the next level, there's an experiment in Pittsburgh that brings game designers closer to the educators who want games for learning. The hope is that by working together, within the school, game designers can create products that more directly meet teachers’ needs. For example, when English Language Arts teachers at Elizabeth Forward Middle School were asked to identify an area of the curriculum kids loathe, they named grammar. The teachers then worked with graduate students at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to develop learning games.

The graduate students designed games for a Situated Media and Learning Lab (SMALLab), which allows kids to have an embodied learning experience while interacting with different scenarios projected onto the floor. The sensors pick up on the movement of wands students carry, interacting with them as students manipulate pieces and scenes.

To address the struggles around grammar, the team designed a space race game in which students choose pronouns from meteors at the bottom of the mat and put them into their own spaceship. Groups race against one another to launch a rocket into space first. Students are moving, discussing their answers and physically choosing words to add to their spaceships. “It almost feels like they’re inside the game,” said Rachael Egan, a sixth grade language arts teacher.

The game also facilitates collaborative learning. There are only three wands, so students often work in groups, discussing strategy, what answers are correct and how to win. “When you step into the SMALLab, it’s not a classroom, it’s a total shift,” Egan said. “They get to do more than sit at a desk and take notes.”


Egan says she’s seeing results in her students. “I’ve seen a big shift in ability level,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are in there with, they all step up to the challenge and take things on."

The CMU students have the complicated job of designing products that are both intrinsically fun for kids and that meet learning goals. “These are great creative challenges in and of themselves,” said Drew Davidson, director of CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center. These games are competing with what students do at home for fun, not with a lecture. “You want your educational game to be something they choose to do,” he said.

Elizabeth Forward and CMU are two of the many schools, universities, museums and organizations that make up the Kids and Creativity Network, now known as the Remake Learning Network, which is focused on finding ways to bring hands-on learning to more Pittsburgh children. With the leadership of assistant superintendent Dr. Todd Keruskin, Elizabeth Forward has seized on an opportunity to expand the types of learning opportunities the school offers to its mostly low-income population.

Partnerships are becoming an increasingly important vehicle for innovation in the modern education landscape. Public-private partnerships like the ones behind MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland and the many grants supporting innovative teaching practices are just some examples of how institutions with similar interests are working together to improve the kind of education offered to all kids.


Learning in the SMALLab has become so popular that the room is almost always booked. With a grant from Chevron, a big employer in the Pittsburgh area, Elizabeth Forward is now trying a similar embodied learning approach around science curriculum and energy issues in particular. In the fall semester, CMU students designed and built a dome with interactive panels that students can manipulate as they learn about solar energy. An app serves up an imaginary world onto the walls and students have to move solar panels around to produce the most energy. As they experiment and get the hang of it, the game levels them up, giving them a new QR code that allows them to access harder problems.

In this game about natural resources students are trying to find enough fuel to light up Pittsburgh's skyline.
In this game about natural resources students are trying to find enough fuel to light up Pittsburgh's skyline. (Vis Viva)

CMU students included a discussion board in the app so students can reflect on their experiences in the dome and connect it back to other aspects of what they’re learning. “We all learn from experience and that’s the real crux to my classes,” said Paul Callaghan, a seventh grade science teacher at Elizabeth Forward. He often posts articles or videos to the discussion board, asking students to make connections between their physical experiences in the dome and the more complex reading assignments.

Another tool Callaghan uses is the augmented reality sandbox. The tool uses a Kinect and a PC to read the contours of the sand and render it as a three-dimensional image. Callaghan has used the sandbox to help his students understand how land divides create watersheds and tributaries.

“This is the kind of technology that I think really helps us because it gives kids a quick look and they understand what’s going on,” Callaghan said. In one assignment, he asks his students to shape a mountain in the sand that could be considered a divide. They have to show the distinct watersheds and tributaries created by that land structure. He then switches on the projectors and the class can see if they’ve achieved the effect they desired. They can make corrections on the fly and discuss where and why they went wrong. He even uses it as an alternative assessment, asking students to create the concepts they’ve studied, explaining along the way using the scientific vocabulary when applicable.

This semester the graduate students have taken on the challenge of making geology fun with a game meant to simulate resource discovery. Students send a seismic wave into the rock using their voices and calculate the kind of resources they might discover in different locations based on the density and permeability of the rock. They learn about the different geological properties of resources like coal, natural gas and oil. Based on the results they can discover from the seismic wave test, students simulate taking a core sample of the earth, comparing it to other rock formations, calculating depth and making a guess about the percentage-chance of hitting a resource there.

At the end, the energy students find is put into a battery and used to literally light up part of the Pittsburgh skyline that CMU students built into the game. This final part isn’t just for fun; it helps reinforce the idea that all this drilling simulation is connected to human energy use.

The energy resource game has been difficult to design, according to Lisa Elkin, a CMU graduate student working on the project. Her team came up with a list of concrete learning goals after listening to teachers' priorities. Those elements were non-negotiable, but other aspects could change. For example, a main goal of the resource game is for students to understand that the frequency* of the wave is what determines its depth. And, when students drill for core samples, the main point is to see the layers of earth and compare them to other kinds or rock. When designing with those learning goals top of mind, other details like the angle of the drill aren’t as important.

“We’ve worked very hard to make sure that education is central to the fun,” Elkin said. She says game designers never want to create “chocolate covered broccoli,” the worksheet in disguise that students sniff out and dismiss immediately. Instead, the games should be fun precisely because they are educational.

“Our success depends on us meeting their goals,” Elkin said. The resource game is an example of how crucial feedback from students and teachers is to getting it right. “We went out and we tested it and no one liked it,” Elkin said. Some of the game mechanics were confusing to students and CMU students had added elements meant to increase collaboration and communication that detracted from the central educational goals. After watching kids interact with the game they went back to the lab to make some major changes.

“They’re the best clients,” Elkin said. “They give lots of great feedback; they’re enthusiastic; they’re responsive, and they really believe what they’re doing and that’s so fun.” And there’s the added benefit of taking a difficult learning concept, turning it into a fun and engaging game and knowing students learned along the way.


The partnership between CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center and Elizabeth Forward has been fruitful for both parties. CMU students get the experience of working with real clients on real problems that will have an impact on education. They have to be creative to take the content knowledge of teachers and makes games students will choose over any other activity. “You either do the boring obvious thing or you do your job,” Elkin said of coming up with great games based on general teacher needs.

Elizabeth Forward has gained several interesting embodied learning games and simulations to help them teach the most difficult parts of their curriculum. Middle school students get the experience of giving their feedback and advice as co-creators in the project. And, best of all the school benefits from an infusion of outside energy and expertise no teacher is expected to have. Teachers are content area experts, not game designers, but when the two team up really useful resources can be developed.


*This article has been changed to reflect the fact that frequency, not amplitude, determines the depth of the sound wave. We regret the error.