Australia has a problem.
Student interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is declining.
As a country we tend to focus on sports and celebrities, often to the detriment of STEM and the arts more broadly. Funding is certainly an issue too, particularly in medical and scientific research, as well as the false belief that the development of STEM knowledge and skills is too difficult for younger children.
But as we know, young people are the key to solving global challenges in the future.
A 2015 PwC study found the drop in skilled, work-ready STEM graduates in Australia has been identified by businesses as the number one barrier to innovation. Without an immediate and urgent focus on STEM in education, Australia risks slipping from its place as the 19th largest economy in the world.
The Australian STEM Video Game Challenge, run by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) through the ACER Foundation, provides students with a real-world opportunity to apply their skills and knowledge in STEM to create games that are interactive, stimulating and meaningful.
(©Australian Council for Educational Research)
The Challenge also helps to facilitate pathways to further study and related careers in STEM. It leverages the massive interest and engagement that many students have in video games to engage them in a more constructive and explicit learning process. Educators say teaching is learning twice – you need to understand something inside out before being able to teach it to someone else – and the same goes for creating a game.
Developing a game by its very nature involves STEM. The idea of the Challenge is that students in Years 5-12 will take concept knowledge, something they’ve learnt in science class for example, and then create a game that elaborates on that concept.
The Challenge not only encourages skills development in game design, but also develops computational thinking, which is a way of solving problems, designing systems and understanding human behaviour.
Computational thinking is a new notion in Australian education and is starting to be built into the Australian Curriculum. It incorporates learning coding and specific programming languages, as well as creativity and the soft skills needed to complement these activities, such as developing concept art, and designing environments, figures and characters. Music and sounds are also important in a game, and need to be edited and built into the technology.
Computational thinking assists students during their school education and beyond by developing skills such as logic and problem solving and risk management as well as their self-efficacy and confidence.
Building a game also requires collaboration, communication and interpersonal skills, including the skill to recruit people to test the game, and even non-commercial games require project management skills, and business and marketing acumen.
As game-based learning is new, we’re still in the very early days of research, although the studies so far suggest that game-based learning can increase engagement. There’s a psychological term called ‘flow’, whereby people become completely absorbed in an activity and lose all sense of time, space and themselves. This is how people can end up playing a video game until 4am! Some researchers have started to ask, wouldn’t it be incredible if students could become that engaged and engrossed in learning through game design?
It doesn’t matter what the game is or how successful it is. When you’ve got kids creating a video game themselves, the potential for an amazing learning experience is much stronger than the common approach of simply giving a student a game to play in the hope that they will learn something.
2014 STEM Video Game Challenge Winners (©Australian Council for Educational Research)
Students will also be able to show a portfolio to potential employers that they created or helped to create a game from start to finish. The idea of realistically identifying what it takes to make a game, the amount of work and effort, time and iteration that goes into it is really a crucial skill that’s developed in game design through the Challenge.
Most importantly, the Challenge will let students know that they are capable of understanding and using STEM, and that anything is possible.
For more information: http://www.stemgames.org.au/
Dr Chad Habel, a Senior Lecturer within the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide and the Director of Game Truck Australia, is a strong advocate of the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge and of game-based learning more broadly, as he explained.