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Play to Learn

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By SUSAN SAWYERS

Last year, a  team of IS230 middle schoolers came in a disappointing second place in New York City DimensionM Megabowl hosted by the Department of Education. The students pledged to vanquish the video game math competition the following year. They strategized, they practiced, they qualified for another round. And in March, six boys returned to Alfred Lerner Hall on the Columbia University campus to dominate the 3rd Annual tournament.

(Photo Courtesy of DimensionM)

“Whenever we had a free period, we would come here [to the tech lab] and work really hard, said David Noh, 13.

“Every single day,” said Allan Persaud, 12.

“and all our hard work paid off,” said Noh.

“We beat them in like 30 seconds,” said classmate, Raihan Ash, 12.”

Working collaboratively is an added benefit of DimensionM, an educational video game series for math, the first in a suite created by New York City based for-profit company Tabula Digita. The idea is that students practice core Kindergarten through 12th grade subjects including math, literacy, science and history.

Founded in 2003 by Ntiedo (EN-tee-A-do) Etuk, 34, a Nigerian-born graduate of Cornell University and Columbia Business School, Tabula Digita creates games where students’ first-person shooter avatars compete individually or against one another in a 3D landscape. In DimensionM, for example, in order to move ahead, players have to respond to a math equation.

“The games align with what teachers have to teach,” said Etuk. “We know that if a student is working on fractions in math, we give equations that align to the curriculum standards.”

You can measure students’ skill proficiencies,” said Etuk. “They think they are competing and playing for fun. But what they don’t know is that they are being assessed,” he said. And, “it fits in to the Obama administration’s STEM initiative,” one that promotes excellence in science, technology, engineering and math education through interactive games and the power of media.

Playing games to practice skills in the classroom is not new. Forty years ago the Carnegie Corporation sponsored the Children’s Television Workshop as a way to educate children at home. But the conversation around technology-based educational games for students in school is somewhat of a novelty. It is too soon to tell how effective the current iteration of educational video games is. Nonetheless, the kids and the teachers are having a blast.

“It just makes math fun,” said Mahtasim Marif, 12, who prefers Social Studies over all other subjects.

“We have to grab our kids with what it is they are doing,” said Sonya Rencher, the technology teacher at IS230 in Jackson Heights, Queens, the school that won the middle school competition. Ms. Rencher is the mother of three boys, ages eight to twenty-four. “What do the boys like to do,” asked Ms. Rencher. “Play video games. All the time.”

Sonya Rencher and sixth grade students at IS230 (Photo: Susan Sawyers)

They aren’t alone. In fact, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, American children spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day on a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device. And since they spend so much of that time using more than one gadget simultaneously, they manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7-1/2 hours.

But there’s no Wii or Nintendo inside Ms. Rencher’s classroom. Instead, her fourth floor corner classroom has four rows of Dell desktop computers lined up on top of four rows of desks. A cart with an old oversized television and Lego robotics sits underneath. Her teacher’s desk sits in a corner in front, off-limits to all. A bright yellow warning sign dares any child to trespass her tiny space.

The computers are loaded with Excel to teach kids how to make tables, Microsoft Word for typing and more tables; PowerPoint for presentations, and game based technology including BrainPop, TeenBiz3000 and DimensionM.

In more and more schools today, technology is recognized as an instructional tool, not only as a subject of instruction. Tabla Digita games are played in Florida, Illinois, Texas and in 80 New York City schools.  After a one year pilot program, schools have the option to buy a license which costs $5 to $20 per student depending upon size of the purchase. Just how educators incorporate these tools into their curriculum depends, on their ability, and in some cases agility, to adapt.

Ms. Rencher is quick to share credit for IS230’s team success with the students’ math teachers. They teach them the skills. When they play,  “it’s about practicing their math,” she said. “I teach them the tools.”

With a sense of humor, Ms. Rencher, who is in her forties, embraces the challenge of teaching technology to students. Twenty-one years ago, she earned her master’s degree in education technology from Long Island University in Brooklyn. “It was the only school that I knew of that was offering such a thing,” she said. “I thought it would be a program that would allow me to remain relevant over time.”

How right she was.

“Most young people can’t remember a time without the Internet,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Association of American Publishers Annual Meeting in early March.  “But right now, many students’ learning experiences in school don’t match the reality outside of school. We need to bridge this gap. We need to make school more relevant and engaging. We must make the on-demand, personalized tech applications that are part of students’ daily lives, a more strategic part of their academic lives.”

And when it comes to gaming and learning, “as adults, we assume there is a digital divide,” said Chrystina Russell, 29, principal of Global Technology Preparatory Middle School in South Harlem, another one of 20 schools that participated in the DimensionM Megabowl in March. “The perception is kids just grow up knowing tech. But if you want them to learn in a meaningful way, they need guidance.”

The small public school of 60 students, six teachers and a staff of 15 opened in September 2009 and aims to integrate technology into teaching and learning.  “The genius in that game is the graphics,” said Ms. Russell referring to DimensionM. “It’s the same as Grand Theft Auto minus the sex. The students get the 3D view but they don’t make it pay off to guess. It forces them to know their skills but it won’t teach them math,” she said.  Ms. Russell is a firm believer in teaching students critical thinking and problem solving.  “Knowing the fact isn’t as important as evaluating.”

Six months into the life of the school, the students seem to be getting what they need, a nurturing safe environment to learn.

To celebrate his participation in the DimensionM competition, Derek Ortiz, 11, who secured a spot as an individual competitor in the Megabowl, was invited to join Ms. Russell and two of his classmates in her electric yellow office for lunch and to play the game one day last month. Once the students finished their chicken fingers, yellow rice and an orange slice, the trio opened their Dell laptops and commenced play.  Every student at Global Technology Prep receives a laptop with his or her name on it.

(Photo: Susan Sawyers)

Derek Ortiz, a sixth grader at Global Technology Prep, is number one when it comes to DimensionM. (Photo: Scott Sell)

Dressed in their requisite khaki pants and dark blue polo shirts, Derek and his friends,  Franklin Smalls, 11, and Ismauri Cabreara, 12, chatted about the day of the competition.   “The room was cold, my hands was cold. There was a mouse,” said Derek, referring to the device, not the animal, rather than the touch pad that he is accustomed to using. “I lost and didn’t want to ever play again.” But he’s back at it and happy to have had the experience. Outside of the tournament, “he always wins,” said, Ismauri. “He ranks number one in the whole school.”

The games and skills associated therein are tied to the New York State standards for the core curriculum. Similarly, each game has built in assessment capabilities. At any time, a teacher can look online at a student’s performance to determine where he or she is excelling or may need additional instruction.

“When they’re playing DimensionM,” said David Baiz, the Global Technology Preparatory math teacher, “they are in the zone.

But that can be a deterrent especially if a student has a question. Especially because, “there’s a time limit,” said Mr. Baiz,. “So they are less likely to stop and ask for help. They do ask me to send discs home or download the games to their flash drive.”

Conversely, with Study Island, another animated game, “they’ll stop and ask a question,” he said. The difference though is that “Study Island is Internet based so if the students wanted to, they could access the game directly from home,” said Baiz. Unlike DimensionM,  there’s little interest on the part of the students to play other games outside of school. “I have to pull teeth to get the kids to access Study Island at home.”

“With DimensionM,” he said, “it’s something they want to play. The game play is really drawing them in.”

Math isn't all fun and games at Global Technology Prep. (Photo: Susan Sawyers)

He ought to know because he, too, is a gamer. So much so, that he came in second place in the teacher competition in this year’s Megabowl.

Taking part in an exciting little competition on a Friday afternoon is one thing but given the weight of curriculum benchmarks based on standardized tests, through April, much of the joy in learning by play gives way toward test prep.

So for now, “it’s about drilling skills home to the students in anticipation of the May tests,” said Mr. Baiz.

Ready, set, test.

About Susan:
Susan Sawyers is a reporter based in New York City. She covers youth culture and technology in education for the website and observed Central Harlem's Democracy Prep Charter School.
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