Maybe video games have a bigger role in STEM education than we thought.
When I watched kids play the intergalactic science adventure game Blue Apprentice in a video I could almost see the neural connections forming in their brain.
So I put it to the test on my seven-year-old daughter (who would rather play than do her summer homework) to see if the game, made by the company Galxyz, would get her to focus more on science. Success. She wanted to play it every night when she got home from camp.
The game, which also comes in an app, narrates a story in which a blue-skinned person named Thalo (the kid picks a male or female version) trudges through an icy landscape in an unknown part of the galaxy. She (or he) meets a small, flying squirrel-like creature, called Grit. Grit's backstory is that it is a Chakkaran, an alien creature whose mission it is to protect and guard scientific knowledge (the game covers 45 science topics).
Interactive activity has proven to improve brain plasticity. But are the kids all right? Yes, they are. They are spending time on screens, but it is not a fruitless task.
Just like exercising can build strong muscles, interactive learning combines concentration with surges of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine that strengthen neural circuits.
In fact, a new study shows how the brain responds chemically in response to anticipating reward, opening the channels needed for learning new information. Researchers from the UK (University of Bristol and Sheffield Hallam University), hypothesized that embedding educational learning in a game would improve learning outcomes, and activate our memory networks. The repetitive actions and thoughts stimulate connections between brain cells, creating neural pathways between parts of your brain.
Playing interactive games also makes it easier for kids to relate better to their peers, so the fear that games like Blue Apprentice make kids isolated and addicted to technology doesn't necessarily hold up. A recent study from Columbia University's School of Public Health says playing video games that shape critical thinking skills can help kids, socially and also in school.
That's important news because science is a key part of STEM programs, and Blue Apprentice is geared to supplement what kids are learning when chained to their desks in the classroom.
Galxyz's founder and CEO, Osman Rashid said he came up with the idea for Blue Apprentice when he was looking for something to help his young daughter with her science homework that was also fun.
Rashid says this is the first interactive learning experience to connect its topics to Next Generation Science Standards, correlating it to the concepts that kids are learning in school. "We are making Blue Apprentice free for teachers so that they can use it as a teaching tool in the classroom. This will allow worry-free access for teachers and allow them to engage kids in a ground-breaking way of learning Science," says Rashid.
My daughter agrees. She loved solving problems as they arose, and making decisions that each time slightly changed the story. I saw her completely focused, particularly as the scenarios got riskier.
"I liked learning about the science—like how when water becomes very cold it becomes ice, and putting hot water on ice makes steam— and figuring out how to get the items that Thalo and Grit needed (like goggles),"she told me.
And playing with risk is a good thing. According to one study, risk-based science learning games improve retention, because risk heightens motivation, and can get students to apply what they've learned in the classroom. But not all of these studies are longitudinal, and we have yet to measure the true impact of interactive learning games on the generation that uses them most.
Meanwhile, I was thrilled when my daughter opened up her homework book yesterday and said, "Ooh, it's asking about matter and how it comes in three different states: solid, liquid and gas. "Like what is air? I know. Air is a gas. Ice is solid. When it melts it is water, a liquid. Steam is a gas. I know those answers."
Believe me, it's much better than Angry Birds.