STEM Video Game Challenge and culture critique

As someone whose intended research focus will purposed toward integrating multimedia with the various therapies intended for children on the autism spectrum, I have definitely taken notice of the national competition for using video games to help children better understand science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). I also appreciate the endorsement for this competition by President Obama. As always, there are issues that need to be addressed.

I first encountered information about this competition on GamePolitics, and I was bothered by this statement:

The challenge features two competitions: the Developer Prize challenges established and emerging game developers to design mobile games that teach young children (grades 4 and under) key STEM concepts and the Youth Prize challenges middle school students (grades 5 through 8) to incorporate STEM concepts in an original game design.

The bothersome information is in bold. Turns out that is from the project website itself:

The Developer Prize challenges emerging and experienced game developers to design mobile games, includinFg [sic] games for the mobile Web, for young children (grades pre-K through 4) that teach key STEM concepts and foster an interest in STEM subject areas.

Again, the bothersome text is in bold. My problem may only be in the wording itself, but this has been on my mind for a while. I read more and more about using technology and games in the classroom. I think it is great, especially since I do believe that some of the games I played in the classroom during my childhood in the 80’s (Number Munchers was the best) really did help me learn and appreciate the subject matter a tiny bit more, but we cannot rely on technology to teach our children. Just the idea of computers taking over can shift the burden from teachers to computers. It removes them from their responsibility and makes them facilitators instead. Facilitators who just need to make sure the technology is working.

Of course, a game like this makes learning unnecessarily competitive. But at the same time, it was fun enough to make us all come back for more.

I know that is a huge jump to make from educational programs to teachers not doing anything. Then again, take a look at the educational system today. Money is being taken away from programs. Teachers, children, and people in general are being de-emphasized – with potential lasting effects on the students who graduate in these conditions. An emphasis on technology to teach children means that cheaper workers could be hired to facilitate this sort of learning experience instead of trained teachers. Again, this is a potential long term issue that we may not see for years to come.

The issue is not in the technology, though. Tech is just the latest item to appear on my radar. It is in no way incorrect to worry about the educational system in America. We have definitely fallen behind other countries in terms of mathematics and the hard sciences. But the problem does not lie in the delivery of the message. If learning this information is made into a game, will that make it more important to children than if the information were delivered by a teacher? Is the teacher’s presentation of information the problem we are facing?

You’ve been to this blog before, right? You know my answer is No.

Here in America, we live in a culture that de-emphasizes the importance of learning and the intellectual. We live in a culture whose societal rewards are given to the flashy and popular. Who are our role models and why? Music, movie, and sports stars. Sure we have a politician here or there, but that often depends on how photogenic the person is. Often their status has nothing to do with education or learning. Even in the cases of successful businessmen who are known by name, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the importance of education is lost because they managed to become billionaires despite never finishing college. As long as you are a name and have money, that is all that matters.

You can identify many of the individuals here. Now, tell me where they went to school, if they went to school, and if that even matters for who they are. This is why kids don't care.

These are the cultural values we are teaching children. What STEM information is necessary to get to the level of their favorite celebrity? Well, I suppose math is necessary to count money, unless you hire an accountant. Technology? Only Twitter is necessary. Engineering? Might be necessary for your computer monopoly, by why go that route when you can buy stock instead? Children do not want to learn this information because overall it is unnecessary for the lives they want to live. For the lives we tell them, implicitly, are more rewarding.

I do not teen and pre-teen television anymore, but if it has continued the messages I received when I was that age then we are definitely in trouble. That media, despite any sort of special messages, always managed to say that being popular and fitting in were the most tasks in school. The smart kids generally stood out and were marked as unpopular. Ever watch Saved by the Bell? Screech was always part of the social group, but he was the target of most jokes. Did you want to be Screech or did you want to be Zach or AC Slater? Girls, which one of them did you want to date? Which one of the female characters did you want to be? And if you wanted to be Jessie, did you just want to be tall and gorgeous with her other characteristics toned down? You can be honest with me.

We live in an anti-intellectual society. Teaching children the importance of the STEM concepts will always be difficult in this atmosphere. And it is not a matter of children not being able to learn the information. They can. Each generation is potentially smarter than the last. They can grasp the information, but they just do not care. Changing the format does not matter unless the end goal is to de-emphasize teachers or try to trick children into learning – and both goals should make the project seem disingenuous. The real goal should be a cultural shift. Good luck there.

All this from the wording used on the site… How would I have phrased it? I always say that my goal is to use technology as a supplement to direct person-to-person teaching. Technology should help the lesson stick, not deliver it in place of the person trained to not only understand how to convey the information but also adapt to the students before her or him. Not only does this improve how receptive the message will be, but it improves the teacher for the next batch. I have no doubt that would be able to create artificial intelligence that is that adaptive, but why deny ourselves the chance to grow? Maybe it’s all the Joseph Campbell I’ve been reading that is getting to me, but it has long felt like we have lost sight of the importance of learning and experiencing.

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About Gospel X

I am a major mediaphile as well as a social researcher. My ultimate belief is that the media can be used to teach children prosocial behaviors and teach adults how to access paradigms. And I think that Mega Man is an amazing example of proteanism. Add me on Google : https://plus.google.com/u/0/113795848855477334599

Posted on September 20, 2010, in culture, technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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