LAS CRUCES – Spectacular flames shoot out of the exhaust pipes on a “monster” school bus as the sixth-grade driver races through neighborhoods, picking up friendly aliens and smashing glass flasks filled with a creepy green potion sitting in the middle of the road.
It’s a lot of fun, but there’s more. Turns out it’s some kind of crazy game and the sixth-grader wants to win, of course, so she needs to be sure she fills all 10 seats on the bus as she takes the aliens to school. If she gets a full load, she gets the most points, but the aliens are scattered around, in little groups here and there. She needs to drive fast, crash through green potion as often as possible, and be sure she is filling up every seat along the way.
Green goo, underage driving and friendly aliens: a middle school kid’s wild dream? Well, sort of. The real-life dream for the sixth-grader and her classmates is getting to play wacky games like this one while in the classroom. The real-life dream for parents and teachers is that while the kids are having so much fun, research shows that they are actually learning essential math principles in this game-based approach to learning.
“Monster School Bus” is one in a suite of video games developed at New Mexico State University with the support of a grant from the National Science Foundation that are having a measurable and positive impact on some of the most troubling areas of math education for children.
Researchers enrolled 700 students in a research study, giving one group access to five Math Snacks games in class, and then measured the impact of the games on student learning. In just a five-week period, students with access to the games learned more than students who were learning with traditional curriculum alone. Once the second set of students was given access to the games, they increased their understanding of key math concepts as well. Results are published in the recent edition of the Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
“We can offer proof that math games in classrooms can lead to increased learning,” said Karin Wiburg, the lead investigator on the grant. Students who used the Math Snacks games retained that knowledge in a post-test as much as five months after they stopped using them in their classroom. Wiburg also noted that regardless of their language preference, income or ethnicity, all students who used the games showed significant improvement.
Wiburg is a distinguished faculty member in Curriculum and Instruction in NMSU’s College of Education.
“All students seem to be attracted to learning mathematics in a new and different way using technology,” Wiburg said. “These materials have the potential to help close the current learning gaps in many states between mainstream and underrepresented students.”
Researchers also completed informal and formal research with the teachers under the direction of Karen Trujillo, director of K-12 outreach for the College of Education’s Alliance for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, who served as the Outreach and Research Director on the grant. All of the teachers in the study stated they would recommend the Math Snacks lessons to other teachers, and more than 90 percent of them plan on using them again. Almost all of the students who also used the Math Snacks games and lessons at school said they would share this resource with family and friends during after-school time.
When they began developing the Math Snacks games and animations, NMSU researchers identified crucial gaps in the knowledge of sixth-grade students by reviewing scores on standardized exams. They then conducted additional research through classroom observation to learn why students missed these questions. This helped them understand what concepts were critical to learners, and how students think when they “get it wrong.”
Teachers and students played an important role in the development of Math Snacks. During development of the games and animations, students participated in hundreds of user testing sessions at NMSU’s Learning Games Lab. Students reviewed characters, level designs, scripts, graphics and gameplay at several stages of development to make sure the tools were enjoyable and effective. In innovative Math Snacks Camps, teachers and students worked together to create companion activities for each game.
The development team included NMSU mathematician Ted Stanford, who served as the math content expert on the project. Barbara Chamberlin, professor and assistant department head for NMSU’s Media Productions and director of the Learning Games Lab, led the development team at the Learning Games Lab, working with their professional artists, programmers and game developers.
“Even before we conducted research on the effectiveness of the Math Snacks tools, the design team knew each animation and game was appealing, easy to use and enjoyable for teachers and students, because we had seen it used with hundreds of kids,” Chamberlin said.
While Math Snacks was developed in New Mexico, it is already being put to use by teachers across the country. In 2015 alone, the games were used more than 4.5 million times.
The games, which are all free to play online, include “Game Over Gopher,” which helps students find their way around the coordinate grid; “Gate,” which helps with understanding of the place value relationship among digits; “Pearl Diver,” which looks at the number line; and “Ratio Rumble,” which teaches ratios and equivalent ratios. The Math Snacks site also offers animations, including “Atlantean Dodgeball,” which focuses on ratios; “Bad Date,” which underlines the rate of one factor versus another; “Number Rights,” which looks at fractions with numerators that are larger than their denominators; “Overruled!”, which deals with proportional units; “Ratey the Math Cat,” which looks at rates and proportions in everyday life; and “Scale Ella,” which covers the mathematical concept of scale factor.
“They are beautiful games,” Chamberlin said. “Kids love them. Teachers love them … and we know that they work.”
The games are available free in English and Spanish at mathsnacks.org. The Math Snacks website includes detailed teacher support materials including teacher guides, how-to videos and gameplay walkthroughs.
So not only are students here and elsewhere having fun driving huge school buses full of aliens, diving for pearls in a tropical sea and protecting prize carrots from marauding gophers, they also are filling in crucial gaps in their knowledge of math.
“It’s a beautiful example of research combined with outreach by NMSU,” Chamberlin said. “We want to put these games in front of as many students as we can.”
Darrell J. Pehr writes for University Communications and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.