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Redmond’s prestigious new K-12 school will replace textbooks with Xboxes

DigiPen Institute of Technology Credit: Flickr: Shuichi Aizawa

Among students of the 90s, the phrase “You have died of dysentery” brings back good memories. It was often encountered during the high point of an elementary school day.

These sort of pronouncements were common in Oregon Trail, one of the first video games to ever make an impact in schools. Created by a history teacher in Minnesota, the game teaches math, history, and problem solving skills, as well as the painful fact that oxen will sometimes drown while fording a river. As of 2011, over 65 million copies of its various versions have been sold. Students generally love it, and it got educators asking a question that’s only grown more relevant: could video games actually be useful?

Titles like Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego made “edutainment” a buzzword, and a promising subsector of the early gaming industry. That promise has since transformed into a sizable boom. Apple estimates they’ve sold over 4.5 million tablets to U.S. schools and over 8 million to schools worldwide. The number of educational apps for the iPad roughly doubled in the past year, to over 40,000. Many, if not most, of these apps contain gaming elements.

So far, though, only scant evidence has emerged that they raise raise test scores or improve learning in a significant way. The STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — are where games could be particularly useful, given the subjects’ complicated and often tedious nature. But scores in those subjects haven’t budged much in the face of “edutainment,” let alone the skyrocketing job prospects for STEM-trained workers.

Gaming’s true educational potential remains untapped, but no one’s giving up on it. Just the opposite. Earlier this year the Gates and McArthur Foundations allocated $10.3 million to finance six educational video games that might actually produce results and gaming monolith Electronic Arts recently released a revamped version of popular title SimCity, complete with educator-focused features and lesson plans.

Redmond’s prestigious Digipen Institute of Technology is taking a different tact. After decades of training programmers and digital designers at undergrad and post-grad levels, the school believes it’s time to fundamentally rethink the role of video games in pre-college education. Maybe the solution isn’t students playing better games. Maybe it’s students making the games themselves.

And maybe, Digipen says, they’ll build a new K-12 school to prove it.

The Seattle metro area has a higher concentration of game developers than nearly anywhere in America, supporting over 16,000 jobs, 300 companies and nearly $10 billion in revenues. As home to Nintendo of America, Microsoft Studios and a plethora of other companies and start-ups, Redmond in particular is an activity center for the industry. The fact one of the gaming world’s top schools is also there seems a given.

Founded in 1991, Digipen was the first accredited school to offer degrees in video game design. Earlier this year, Princeton Review listed both its undergraduate and graduate programs among the top 10 in the nation in the field of video game design. The fact such a list even exists in the influential college guide indicates the growing value of such training.

Graduates of Digipen are behind such titles as Portal and the multibillion-grossing Halo series, but they don’t just make their marks in gaming. According to Digipen Program Director Ben Ellinger, many take a different professional path. Some help create the latest business software for Microsoft, the biggest employer of DigiPen grads. Others create the digital art found in other entertainment, or the principal coding in successful non-gaming apps.

“Graduates walk away from here with a solid programming foundation,” said Ellinger. “There’s a whole lot you can do with that.”

When I first visit Digipen’s large, 3-story facility in Redmond though, it isn’t top guns in coding and design that I see walking the halls. It’s a hundred-plus students, ranging from elementary to high school age, participating in one of the school’s summer workshops. They’re packed into classrooms, learning how to program robots and code basic games. And, despite the occasionally dense subject matter, they seem into it.

Digipen arguably legitimized getting a formal education in video games, to the point where MIT now has a program. This makes its newest mission somewhat apropos. By partnering with public high schools, as well as offering a wide variety of summer programs, Digipen wants to change the way educators, parents and students define “gamification.”

Digipen has long grappled with an issue that many experts, including those in the White House, cite among America’s most pressing problems: students emerging from public schools aren’t equipped for advanced STEM education. Digipen sees many prospective undergrads who are gung-ho about becoming the next Grand Theft Auto designer. However, these students are usually unaware of how much math is involved in launching a virtual Lamborghini off a suspension bridge.

“We get lots of interest, but often the students are not academically prepared at all,” said Raymond Yan, a senior executive at Digipen. “When a kid comes to you in their senior year, and they can’t handle basic algebra or pre-calc, they’re not ready to program. They’re not ready for any computer science or engineering education, really. There’s not enough kids who are interested in this stuff, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

A decade ago, Digipen launched a partnership with local school districts, primarily in Northeast King County. The aim: give high school juniors and seniors a free, innovative crash course in STEM subjects, and maybe a serious interest in studying them in college.

While the specifics of the program have been refined over the years, the basics have remained the same. High school students spend half their day on their standard curriculum, and half in Digipen’s program, primarily focused on math, science and tech subjects. Under Digipen’s curriculum, however, all those subjects are filtered through a common context: how it applies to creating video games.

Students in these programs are graded and given school credits, and the curriculum is designed to square with what they’d learn traditionally. Programming a video game requires math (geometry, linear algebra, calculus), science (physics), extensive problem solving, project management and more. But by having students create something using those skills, Yan said, the lessons are brought closer to earth.

“We don’t believe in dumbing things down,” said Yan. “The idea is giving them an entry point. One of the biggest challenges in the education system is getting students to take on advanced math or advanced science and actually engage with it. That’s why I think more people are interested in our approach.”

730 pre-college students were enrolled in Digipen’s classes this past year, Yan said. 270 of them were high school level, taking half-day classes both at Digipen’s campus and at local “skill centers” run by the public school system, where Digipen has trained faculty members. The other 430 attend their summer workshops, where curriculum is specifically tailored for different grade levels and interests.

Educating not only high school students, but kids across the K-12 spectrum, has led Digipen to get more ambitious over the years. They continue to train more schools and educators in their curriculum and techniques, Yan said, expanding their reach across Washington, and as far as Canada and Illinois.

But more dramatically, Digipen has recently been approved to open a K-12 private school in the Redmond area, and hopes to have its first class in place by fall of 2014. They will start small, Yan said, focused on kindergarten and elementary. From there he hopes to expand, to the point where a student could conceivably receive DigiPen’s tech-oriented education from pre-school to post-grad.

“This is our big experiment,” said Yan. “We’re creating a full-blown program, not just late-high school anymore. We think we have something to offer all students.”

A cardinal rule in education is to “Keep It Relevant.” If you can connect a subject to something students already know or are interested in, you have a better chance engaging them.

The growing role of video games in education owes to a belief in their possibilities. But necessity is also to blame. A 2008 study by the Pew Institute showed 97% of teenagers play some form of video games everyday, and the numbers aren’t much different among pre-teens. For those who’ve grown up in the last few decades, interacting with a screen can feel far more natural than flipping through a textbook.

“Any teacher looking at their class is looking at a bunch of video game experts,” said Yan. “It’s a natural starting point.”

The Washington Network for Innovative Careers, or WaNIC, was among Digipen’s first partners in the public school system. Encompassing seven Eastside school districts, including Bellevue, Issaquah, and Lake Washington, WaNIC has enrolled hundreds of students in Digipen’s program over the years. Director Karen Hay said the partnership has been extremely successful for students, and has “earned a lot of respect” from teachers and parents.

“They’re making games, but they’re also doing pretty rigorous math,” said Hay. “It’s not a traditional math class, where they’re presented a lesson and do problems all the time. But a student is going to be exposed to subjects that aren’t easy. … Registration always fills up. There’s a lot of demand for it.”

More each year, higher education seems to promise mountains of debt more than good employment. But demand for STEM-adept employees is booming, and their post-college pay is higher than other graduates. In fact, a Georgetown University study showed nearly half of workers with STEM-related bachelor degrees earned more than those with PhDs in other fields.

Washington ranks number one with regard to a concentration of STEM jobs. However, over half of the state’s high school graduates aren’t prepared for college-level math. The mismatch between jobs available and qualified local applicants is among the worst in the nation.

The challenge educators face is leading their students down the more difficult, but rewarding, path. And that means making ostensibly boring subjects less so.

There are no fix-alls in education, but many people hope video games might at least present a chance at evolution. At this point, the question is no longer whether they’re part of education’s future. The question is how they’ll be a part of it.

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