There is an incredible push across the country to increase the appeal among students for STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. These are subjects that will become the backbone of the next generation of innovators across the world. STEM fields also seem to represent a growing percentage of the job opportunities in America: according to the US Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at twice the rate of other occupations. Yet, while opportunities are growing and this need is rising, American students in particular seem to be falling farther and farther behind in these topics. If you ask most school children why, the answer will usually be, “I don’t get it,” or even worse, “It’s boring.”
Kids love cool things. From the moment they can interact with the world around them, they instinctively begin testing weight, texture, and taste. But this love of often falls when learning shifts from categorizing animals, blowing things up, and making stinky concoctions to having to sit still and memorize stuff. Science topics are often drowned in the classroom by endless emphasis on facts and terminology.
But the scientific method (make a hypothesis, test that hypothesis, evaluate the data) is beautifully simple, and it’s the instinctive heart of so many games. Here are a few games to help breathe some life back into your student’s perception of STEM subjects.
This game is great for people of all ages and covers Entertainment, Art, Sports, History, Science and Geography. Each category is personified by a little cartoon character who entertains even the youngest players. You can play by passing the phone around, or by playing with your friends through facebook. You can also have multiple games going so that you don’t have to wait for your opponent to answer if you want to keep playing. Modeled after games like Trivial Pursuit, players spin a wheel to generate their category, and then answer the question presented in the time allotted. There are a few Who Wants to be a Millionaire-style hint options, but the game boils down to who can answer the most trivia questions correctly. Younger kids have vibrant animation to keep them interested, and children (and adults) of all ages can engage in the competition aspect.
While most science games focus exclusively on science, this game has a little bit more of a broad focus. So the more “hardcore” STEM questions are broken up by ones about movies and baseball. Its an excellent conversation starter when students don’t know a term or a person. Since you are on your phone already, you can pull up google and turn the game into a self made lesson on a new subject defined by the student’s own curiosity. Fostering this curiosity is one of the key elements to helping difficult subjects remain interesting and, more importantly, relevant to students.
Speaking of increasing curiosity, Little Alchemy is a mesmerizingly simple game which combines science with fantasy surprises. The player begins with four basic elements: fire, water, earth, and air. From there, you combine elements to make metal, bacteria, plants, and animals. Many of the combinations can lead to great science questions: Why does combining plants and sunlight make oxygen? Other combinations are a bit less scientific and a little more literal, like combining electricity and human to make an electrician, so be sure your younger students understand that electric shocks don’t actually give you power over electricity.
You can use the game as an exploration of plant, animal, and mineral life on Earth. It’s an incredibly freeform game, and the occasional discovery of aliens, unicorns and wizards lends a treasure hunt feel to the whole experience. The mechanics are simple enough that even the youngest of children can play it, but the concepts explored and illustrated through the combinations are potentially complex enough that even high-school and adult players can appreciate the puzzle.
World of Goo
Physics is an often dreaded term, only explored by the bravest of high school seniors or in the collegiate environment. However, physics is all around us, governing the balls we play with in sports, the stars we observe at night, and the skiing conditions that thrill us in the mountains. World of Goo is a deceptively simple puzzle game about building structures and, in some cases machines, in order to accomplish objectives. Each is composed of interlocking goo balls, on their quest to find a better place. Concepts of balance, levers, pulleys, and structural integrity are encountered as you explore the oddball World of Goo. If you have a free afternoon, extending these concepts to real life challenges is an obvious segue into exploring these problems in the real world:
- Can you build a LEGO bridge from one table to the other without supports in the middle?
- Can you build a tower that is ten times taller than the width of its base?
- Can you figure out how to control and steer a kite in the wind?
While the game is suitable for players of all ages, the concepts illustrated will best fit with middle school-level science concepts.
Plague Inc. and Pandemic
Plague Inc. is a game about the development and spread of disease. It is basically a strategy game, and to win you must evolve your disease and spread it across the world, infecting and killing everyone. The interface allows you to play as a bacteria, virus, or fungal infection, as well as more advanced and sometimes fantastical pathogens like a bio-weapon or a sentient vampire virus. The play is simple enough:: bank up points to evolve your disease and control how it spreads. You can change how the disease is transmitted, what symptoms manifest, and how the disease works on a biological level. All of these options are ripe for discussions about disease in your own home or community, ways to prevent illness, and even policy about the development of medicine.
For more advanced players, there are elements of social awareness and hygiene in countries across the world. A scrolling news reel keeps you aware of whether people are aware of the disease, and events that might help or hinder the spread. The Olympics draws people from across the world and provides an opportunity for spreading on an epidemic level, whereas the Brexit and England’s isolation of itself might make infecting the UK more difficult. Flooding might lead you to increase the pathogen’s ability to travel through water, while droughts would lead you to increase airborne transmission. You can learn about the geography and development of over a hundred countries, making the game a great geography boost as well.
Pandemic is a similar game, but with the roles flipped. You play as the research team trying to stop a disease before it infects the world. It has similar current events and geography applications, but requires a much higher level of reading and strategy ability to really enjoy.
With a parent, kids as young as six can get into both of these games. And for those of you with kinesthetic learners, both have board game equivalents!
BONUS GAME: Bio Inc.
Bio Inc. is in the same family as Plague inc. if you want a game that focuses much more on specifically how a human body responds to disease. The player has the ability to impact the circulatory, respiratory, nervous, muscular, renal, skeletal and digestive systems of the patient, and the objective is to create the ultimate illness and kill the patient. Environmental factors like weather and habitual factors like diet impact the patient as much as your “attacks” on the various biological systems. This game is ideal for middle school players and up.
BONUS GAME: DragonVale/DragonVale World
This is a great zen game for people who like making pretty things. You play as the master of your own Dragon Park and your objective is to create a place where magical denizens can come and view the most unusual and exotic dragons imaginable. You earn money from visitors, build and improve habitats and breed dragons.
While there are some pretty cool project management and budgeting lessons you can draw from DragonVale, the relevant topic for our science focus here is one of genetics. Each dragon has two genetic traits based on the primal elements in the game (fire, water, sky, and earth). These traits can be combined to create new traits (fire + sky =lightning, or water + earth = mud), and they can be paired up to seek specific breeding outcomes. While Punnett square problems (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punnett_square) are usually left to AP and college-level classes, the concept is simple enough that an elementary school child can get it if given the tools to experiment. Cross-pollinating snap peas or breeding mice is out of the question for most people, but making a hypothesis about what happens when you breed a fire/water dragon with a sky/water dragon is quite easy when you run your own dragon park!
All of the games discussed above can be improved by using the scientific method: Create a hypothesis about what strategies can be used to get a specific outcome in the game. Test that hypothesis by using the strategies. Observe what happens and discuss the outcomes over dinner or a play date with friends who have downloaded the same game. Above all, cultivate that curiosity that kids come by so naturally. The wide world of STEM subjects is riddled with mysteries and quirks that are just waiting to be solved and harnessed by students who never decided that science is boring.