When educator Lynn Koresh hears from kids that they want a career doing something with computers, she asks, “To do what with computers?”
Adults often encourage kids to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, and computing classes are usually a first stop. But Koresh knows it’s the real-world applications of computational thinking and coding language skills that bring such knowledge to life.
She reasoned that most middle school students are already playing video games and might respond well to a unit on how to design, create, test and promote video games. Along the way, she's also teaching them about digital citizenship and entrepreneurship.
“I wanted to give kids exposure to what it means to have a career using computers,” said Koresh, technology coordinator at Edgewood Campus School in Madison, Wisconsin.
She gave students the task of designing a game using Gamestar Mechanic. It’s a Web tool that helps kids create games. Before any programming begins, students talk about their games, set objectives and start storyboarding on paper. They think about the game’s avatars and how the game mechanics will work. Koresh shared her experience teaching this class at the Games Learning Society conference in Madison.
As students develop their games, they test them on one another throughout the semester. Koresh has found kids often give short and positive feedback, making it challenging to learn enough to improve the game. She says the kids respond this way mostly because they’re concerned for their friends and worry that they’ll get a bad grade, even though that’s not the case.
"You have to get specific enough so they don't say, 'It's good, I liked it.' You have to force them to take a stand."
To help improve the process, she has reframed the questions around student game critiques in a consumer-oriented way, such as, “Would you pay 99 cents for this app? Would you give it three stars or four stars?”
To help them become more critical thinkers, the students read product reviews on blogs and business sites to learn about features that might improve the user experience. In the process, Koresh hopes the kids learn to be selective digital consumers and do research before making purchases or trusting a source.
It’s also an opportunity to talk about a person’s digital footprint and the types of comments, images and videos that can come back to haunt someone.
“If you put it online, it should be worthy of other students, grandma, everyone seeing it,” said Koresh.
Once the games are completed, the middle school students have three seconds to pitch their game to fourth-grade players in the form of a slide on a computer screen. Since time to persuade the audience is limited, much like in real life, game designers have to “sell” their game with one compelling slide. Students have to be selective about which elements of the game to highlight. Creating the slide is also an opportunity to talk about marketing.
“It’s great you’ve made something, but how do you get other people to use it?" Koresh asks her students. They get a good idea about how well their ad has worked based on the number of plays their games receive.
As for whether parents object to kids spending more time on video games, she says they have been supportive of STEM activities and pre-coding skills learned in game design. Koresh has found the time students spent on the games, both inside and outside class, has helped them think about coding as an extracurricular activity. Girls who have created games in her class have gone on to enter STEM design competitions.
Here are some of the ads Koresh's students created that link to their games: