Jaclyn Curnow, a Year 7 teacher of Information Technology at Mill Park Secondary College in Melbourne, is currently working with a large group of students who have registered for the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge. As her students design and create their own video games ready for submission by 21 August, Ms Curnow says her students are learning plenty.
‘Video games, whether students are playing or creating them, are challenging, but creating video games fosters and promotes students’ critical thinking, media literacy and information literacy, but also their communication and collaboration skills, and their creativity. Besides these lifelong skills, the creation process also fosters their resilience,’ Ms Curnow says. ‘My students demonstrate their resilience as they persist in solving the various problems they encounter in a purposeful project like the Challenge.
‘A resilient student understands that problems have a solution and that, through persistence, they can solve the glitches that invariably crop up, and see the task through from inception to completion.
‘One of the key benefits of programming is that it is a safe platform for learning and developing resilience, as students experiment and explore the software to make their own game successful.’
One of the important benefits of programming, notes Ms Curnow, is that it requires students to frequently test and evaluate their scripts for functionality and effectiveness. ‘If a student is not successful with an aspect of the script, they can modify the coding instructions or change the sequence. The script can be modified, numerous times if necessary, without making huge alterations to other aspects of the design. By persisting, the students complete their own game, which is bug free, and experience success.
‘Resilience is an important life skill that contributes to students sense of self-efficacy. It is important that young people have and develop the ability to work through challenges and solve real and purposeful problems,’ she says.
According to Ms Curnow, the Challenge has strongly appealed to the Mill Park students’ values, interests and needs. ‘The students have found the “real world” authenticity, purpose and challenge of the project highly motivating and engaging during the project, arriving to class early and wanting to stay back after class, even after the school day. They have clearly been invested in the task in terms of effort, time and energy. As Daniel H. Pink – the world-renowned business, work and management author – observes, mastery, autonomy and purpose are all required if you want real engagement. The students have been engaged because the Challenge has a clear purpose, requires them to collaborate but gives them autonomy in making decisions, drawing on a range of possibilities and approaches to their project, and builds in mastery as they design and program a playable video game.’
Because the Challenge offers the choice to work independently or collaboratively, the Mill Park students provided each other with a lot of support, advice and encouragement, but also exercised plenty of choice about what and how they learned. ‘They controlled the STEM content and programming skills, as well as how they went about learning what they needed to learn,’ Ms Curnow says. ‘My role in the classroom was both instructor and facilitator, depending on the students’ needs. I employed different teaching approaches from a problem-solving approach to a discovery approach and didactic teaching. Programming a video game cultivates autonomous learning. When autonomy is linked with the desire to improve personal performance, students are highly engaged.’
The Challenge also promotes a mastery approach because each game demands functionality, Ms Curnow notes. ‘In writing the correct script, the students have been very keen to solve the problems they encountered, learning through trial and error and prediction. For each student, though, “mastery” is a personal measurement. Those who are new to programming can experience success, just as a proficient programmer can.
‘When first being introduced to programming, I ask students what comes to mind when they heard the word, “programming”. Typically, they think “only smart people” can do programming. But when I asked the question again, at the completion of their game, their responses changed to, “Everyone!”, “Me – I am a programmer!” Video game design and construction is for everyone, as it is a creative process that draws upon our multiple intelligences.
‘Whether we are advanced users of technology or beginners, we have many skills which we can draw upon to create a video game, drawing on our kinesthetic, collaborative, self-reflective, linguistic, visual and spatial, logical, musical and naturalistic intelligences.
‘Programming is highly creative. Students have control over the selection and creation of their sprites, stages and scripts. Their options are endless and their imaginations can be unlocked. And the possibilities are endless as students then code their variations.’
Ms Curnow says the Challenge also addresses the criteria for student motivation and engagement identified by the Schlechty Centre on Engagement because it is designed to be suitable to students’ context and to enable choice.
‘The Challenge task design introduces variations in the qualities that can be introduced into the video game. Students are autonomous, as they write and code their own game. They make decisions about whether they will import sprites or design their own, use sounds from a program or record their own. The students make countless choices about what is needed to program their game.
‘The task design also allows for teachers to deliver curriculum content and for the standards and progression points to be assessed. The Challenge’s judging rubric and the GDD or game design document also provide clear expectations for the students.’
One of the key reasons that the Challenge is authentic and purposeful, says Ms Curnow, is that the students are aware that their work will be showcased before a wider audience that includes their peers and families, but also the judges in the video gaming industry and, potentially, game players themselves.
‘The Challenge has been personally meaningful work for my students. They have accomplished something of worth by creating their own unique game, and by participating at a national level. These are rewarding experiences.’