For kids, playing video games is a fun activity to pass the time. But gaming can also help build skills in problem solving, dexterity and quick thinking. The creators behind the National STEM Video Game Challenge recognize that this skill-building can be taken even further: By learning how to create video games, students can expand their interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The National STEM Video Game Challenge calls for middle school, high school and college students (educators and professional developers have categories as well) to create video games about educational and social topics, such as recycling or healthy eating. The goal is to use kids’ passion for video games to motivate interest in STEM learning. “It’s not about getting kids playing games, but to get them engaged in making games as a way to excite them to learn STEM, as well as other really good 21st century skills,” says Allyson Peerman, president of the AMD Foundation, one of the challenge’s sponsors.
In the challenge’s second year, 28 middle-school and high-school winners were selected from more than 3,700 entries. The young game developers were honored at an event on May 21, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington, D.C. They received AMD-based laptops, educational software and game-design tools, plus a $2,000 grant for their school or non-profit organization. The winning games featured topics such as genetics, the solar system, math and recycling.
Eighth-graders Julia Weingaertner and Sarah Lippman, both 13, won the challenge’s PBS KIDS Ready to Learn Prize for their game, Animal Inequalities. The game teaches young kids about math inequalities by asking players to direct a shark—with a mouth shaped like an inequality sign—to eat the bigger group of fish. The girls created the game for a required computer-programming course at their all-girls school, in Princeton, New Jersey.
“We were both scared to take [the class] because we had never really done computer programming before,” Sarah told TFK. “It’s definitely a lot more interesting than I thought it would be.” The girls loved the thrill of watching other people play their creation. “We worked so hard on the game, and then to see it actually working… it was really cool,” Julia said.
High-school winner Owen Leddy, 15, from Santa Monica, California, was already hard at work on his 3-D game, “Pathogen Wars,” when he learned about the challenge. The game takes players through different areas of the human body. Students play as white blood cells and try to destroy pathogens and infections. The game took two years to develop. “The most challenging part was weeding out glitches,” Owen told TFK. “While it was sometimes frustrating, it was also extremely informative and helped me develop my game-design and programming skills a lot.”
Peerman says she was impressed by the amount of enthusiasm the winners showed for the process of making the games. “The variety and creativity was quite high level,” Peerman said. “I was really impressed by what we saw. And, of course, the game itself is important, but the process is where the real learning comes in.”
The National STEM Video Game Challenge is organized by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and E-Line Media, in partnership with the following sponsors: Entertainment Software Association, AMD Foundation, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting/ PBS KIDS Ready To Learn Initiative. Learn more about the challenge at stemchallenge.org.