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Video games in the classroom? Welcome to the future of learning

Our university is headed to the "final four" — in game design. Next month, a team from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) will travel to San Francisco to compete against three other teams in the games category of the final U.S. round of the Microsoft Imagine Cup, a global student technology competition. The team will pitch its project to a panel of judges composed of Silicon Valley technology leaders and entrepreneurs. As the students vie for the honor of representing the U.S. internationally, they're also showing us the future of teaching, learning, and careers.

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Source: UMBC
Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The UMBC team reflects the American workplace of the near future, bringing together two men and two women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. The team also illustrates the potential of "STEAM" collaborations, where science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are combined with art and design. Two members of the team are studying the computer sciences and two the visual arts, focusing on interactive media. Their game, called HueBots, features friendly-faced, rainbow-hued robots.

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Moreover, Team Huebotics provides clues about how to improve education for students of all backgrounds. Too many young people today are bored at every level of education. And yet our student game developers voluntarily put in hundreds of hours on their winning creation.

American education, from pre-K to college, must find ways to inspire similar dedication and to bring content to life. Digital environments are second nature to today's young people. Playing well-designed games, as well as creating them, can pack an educational punch.

Team HueBotics, a video-game development team at UMBC, is among the final four student teams competing to represent the U.S. in the Games division of the 2015 Microsoft Imagine World Cup competition. The teammates are (l. to r.) Jasmin Martin, Erika Shumacher, Tad Cordle, and Michael Leung.
Source: Nicolas Deroin
Team HueBotics, a video-game development team at UMBC, is among the final four student teams competing to represent the U.S. in the Games division of the 2015 Microsoft Imagine World Cup competition. The teammates are (l. to r.) Jasmin Martin, Erika Shumacher, Tad Cordle, and Michael Leung.

UMBC history professor Anne Rubin and computer science professor Marc Olano, who mentors Team Huebotics, had that in mind when they devised coordinated courses revolving around games. For one project, students are crafting an immersive video game to teach about the Civil War in Baltimore. The player becomes a fox running through the city as the Pratt Street Riot breaks out between Union soldiers and a Southern-sympathizing citizenry. The fox has the chance to change the course of history, reducing the deaths that occurred in 1861.

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Not only does designing the game require students to grapple with history, it helps demystify computer science for students who might otherwise have shied away from it. Too often, Americans view science and technology as fields for which only a select few have the aptitude. We often hear, "Some people just can't do math." That's no more true than the idea that only some people can learn to read.

Certainly, mastering a STEM concept or one from any discipline requires focus and hard work, and we have found that borrowing from video games can help with that, too. Chemical engineering professor Josh Enszer used course-management software to replace typical grading with the mastery levels found in games. For example, if students turned in all assignments, it qualified as an "achievement" and they would hear Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" the next time they logged in. In a survey, the students endorsed the change as increasing both fun and motivation.

John Hennessy, president of Stanford University, reinforced the need for innovation in his recent lecture to university leaders at the American Council on Education conference in Washington. He challenged the audience to heed research suggesting that students typically pay attention to a lecture for fewer than seven minutes before their focus drifts. He recommended using the high production values and animation that games employ as one way to keep students engaged.

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Since Oregon Trail made its way into elementary-school classrooms across the country, this approach has drawn skeptics who question whether students are learning or simply being entertained. To address such concerns, we must ensure that sound pedagogy forms the foundation of any gaming experience. At the core of the matter — across all levels of education — we are still talking about substantive interaction between faculty and students, whether the instructor is teaching in the classroom or supporting students in a gaming competition.

The right use of technology in redesigned courses can improve teaching and learning. In particular, video-game simulations and interactivity make learning not only more enjoyable but more profound and long-lasting. That's why at UMBC we have said, "Let the games begin."

Commentary by Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). His latest book, "Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement," comes out in May 2015. Follow UMBC on Twitter at @UMBC.