Using Video Games to Get Kids Excited About Science Can video games help kids develop in meaningful ways? How can gaming and other digital technology serve as a portal to learning about math and science? Farai Chideya puts those questions to three experts.
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Using Video Games to Get Kids Excited About Science

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Using Video Games to Get Kids Excited About Science

Using Video Games to Get Kids Excited About Science

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This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. We are going to talk a little bit about video games and their influence on kids. Now, if you're a parent, you may know that the video game world is worth millions and millions of dollars. And here's a little bit of what you might hear in your home every day.

(Soundbite of video games)

CHIDEYA: According to the Entertainment Software Association, video games sales reach almost 19 billion dollars last year. But can video games and other entertainment technology help kids with their education and even their careers? It's the question we're putting to three experts, Jerone Mitchell teaches computer science, engineering and statistics at W.T. White High school in Dallas, Texas. Tara McPherson is an associate professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She is also a researcher for the McArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative. And our own tech guru Mario Armstrong is here. He has put together a program dedicated to inspiring students to pursue science technology and engineering. It's called Dream, Create, Go. Hi folks.

Dr. TARA MCPHERSON (Associate Professor, School of Cinematic Arts): Hi.


Mr. JERONE MITCHELL (Computer Science, Engineering, and Statistics, W.T. White High School, Dallas, TX): Hey, how're you doing?

CHIDEYA: I am doing great. So, let's talk about some of the programs that you guys are working on and using to connect kids with science and technology. Mario, obviously you're a great friend to our show and you've also-someone who's wearing many hats including working with kids. Tell us about your program, why did you launch it? What does it do?

ARMSTRONG: OK, so really at the heart of our company, our technology media company for the outreach part, we have a summer camp, an after school program, a high tech fashion show, and the Urban Video Game Academy, and this new one the Dream, Create, Go. And all of these things, all of these efforts, all these programs are aimed at middle and high school students. Specifically in urban areas to really expose, explore, and excite, and inspire students when how science and technology are involved in everyday products or in everyday things that they can relate to, thus getting them to be interested in wanting to know more about the math and science behind it which is our goal to get them to want to pay attention in the classroom. So, we use tools through our programs that kids can relate to like video games and others. To get them connected and then we start to teach them and get them to learn more in better things about science and technology so that they can remove the barriers that are in their minds, or the challenges that are in their minds.

CHIDEYA: So, once you get them hooked, what kinds of skills are you teaching them that may not have to do directly with gaming or, you know, even computers?

ARMSTRONG: You know, social interaction number one. How do you develop products within a team? How do you talk to your team members to go from point A to point B? Those are interpersonal skills. Life skills. How do you deal with conflict resolution? So, all of these things that may not be - seem to be addressed in a technology camp or a technology after school program, we consider those things. We also consider how our imagery is being portrayed in video games and in technology and bring those social discussions to the forefront. So, we're really having this roundabout ecosystem of learning. Not just about the science and tech, but other things that are impacting our kids as well.

CHIDEYA: Tara it sounds like this is right up your alley as well. You're with - you wear a couple of hats but one of them is working with the MacArthur Foundation which has this multi-million dollar initiative. So, when you hear Mario talk about what he does, how does it relate to what you do? And tell us more about that.

Dr. MCPHERSON: It's really right up the alley of the digital media and learning initiative for the MacArthur Foundation which wants to take very seriously the engagement, children from a very young age through post-college, have with the new media technologies. And rather than insight some moral panic that kids are playing video games too much, instead really engage the kids and see what they are learning from these forms, and how we need to scaffold those forms of learning to get the kind of outcomes that were just being described so that kids develop literacies around media. To understand, when you use particular media to communicate certain things in a very visual and audio driven world, how - who controls the media, who owns it? So, you know when people are trying to sell you something. But also to start to learn some higher order problem solving skills that many experts believe were embedded in some video game play.

CHIDEYA: Give me a very specific example of one of the projects that's part of this initiative.

Dr. MCPHERSON: There - a couple of really interesting. One is based in Chicago with Charter and after school groups that's run by Nicole Pinkard out of the University of Chicago that engages children in technology to the production of music which already for urban youth, and in this context mostly African-American youth. And the southside of Chicago is a very technologically driven and powerfully expressive form. So, the students learn different technological skills. In these key aspects of teamwork, by producing music, distributing that online in different formats.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jerone I want to go to you because you're actually in the classroom. You're teaching Computer Science, but also Engineering and Statistics. What kind of students do you have and how do you get them interested in what you're doing?

Mr. MITCHELL: I end up with a wide variety of students, both your typical average students as well as the higher level students that one would expect in a computer science or engineering classroom. And the key as I believe Mario mentioned a little earlier is finding ways to have the students actually relate to the material. And in my case because I am a classroom teacher, relate that material to what goes on in other classroom. The things that a student learns in a math class has practical applications when a lot of the kids don't see it. If you want to show a child how add matrices of numbers, there's not a lot to grab on to. If you tell a child we'll going to show you how they did the Keanu Reeves special effects on where the bullets slow down and you could see little after images of him, that make sense. That's practical, and that's something they learn in the math for in a high school type situation, they just don't know it yet. So, in the Engineering class that teaches the Infinity Project that's sponsored by Southern Methodist University, we actually show them the practical usages of what they're learning in their regular classes by bringing that technology.

CHIDEYA: Have you ever had - you probably have had many, but give me an example of an aha moment for a kid when maybe they were like grudgingly going through the course work and then figured out, hey this is really worth something.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I've actually wanted to bounce off of something Tara mentioned in terms of the digital music. A lot of our younger students are heavily, heavily into forms of music that are mostly done with computers, not necessarily via instruments. So, when you want to teach someone, say, signal processing. If you tell a kid to multiply a formula times a constant that really means nothing. But if you show them their voice and then we want to increase, we want to make it louder functionally you're doing the exact same thing and you can draw that parallel between the math of the- the math from the math class and what they're doing in real life when they turn that little knob up. So, from there once they turn that little knob up, they understand what's going on. They made that parallel. Suddenly it makes sense on the math side. So, again through practical applications, you can actually get them into all of the more theoretical stuff more than they learn in other class.

CHIDEYA: Well, in case for folks who were just tuning in. This is News & Notes, I am Farai Chideya. And we are talking about how video games and entertainment technology can help kids learn math and science. We're talking to Tara McPherson, Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, and a researcher for the McArthur Foundation, also Jerone Mitchell we were just hearing from him. He teaches Computer science, engineering, and statistics at W.T. White High School on Dallas, Texas. And Mario Armstrong, News & Notes tech guru. Now let's go with this from a parent perspective. Mario I'm going to start with you. Because you deal with kids, you also deal with parents. And you know sometimes this was something we talked about in an education series that we did. Some parents are actually resistant to their kids learning, because of their own bad experiences as children in the classroom. Do you ever run into cases where the kids are fairly gung-ho but the parents have some fear?

ARMSTONG: Absolutely. Especially when you're talking about when we launched the Urban Video Game Academy, I mean, just the name of that alone, and I think that Theresa touched on this earlier, I mean Tara I'm sorry, touched on this earlier, the moral panic of video games. But yes, so there is this fear because they have not grown up with the same tools that our kids today have grown up with. And they don't quite understand, some parents that is, don't quite understand exactly how these tools can have positive benefit. And how they actually can relate to core academics and actually relate to powerful careers that can give them a future of sustainability and possibly even entrepreneurship. So, when we have those types of situations you really have to deal with them very cautiously and you have to show them the connectivity. If you can show parents, if you can - if parents can open their minds up and just listen and absorb the message that, wait, a video game designer is not just a video game for shooting games. There are strategy games. There are games for health care. There are games for medical research and simulations. NASA uses video games.

All of these other areas and applications where video games can be utilized and that's just one particular area, video games. But when you're dealing with parents, it's important for them to see exactly how you're piecing together the puzzle of the future. And how this impacts their child and gives them a sustainable future. And when you do that, they seem to be more relaxed. But when you talk engineering in some of the households I've had to talk engineering, it is foreign talk. And it is important you raised that point, Farai because if the parents don't give that support in the home, it makes it even more challenging for those kids that are interested in these science technology and engineering math tracks.

CHIDEYA: Tara, what do you hope is the long-term ramification of the work that you're doing with the MacArthur Foundation, in terms of social justice for example, when you don't have nearly as many percentage-wise African-Americans and Latinos going into high level science as you do whites and Asians?

Dr. MCPHERSON: There's I think a real potential problem in the future that access to digital technologies, in meaningful context, won't be available to people from lower economic status. One of my colleagues, Ellen Seiter has written a very interesting book, "The Digital Playground," that looks at unequal access in, you know, L.A. and Southern California in elementary schools, the technology. And I think, one of the hopes of the MacArthur Foundation is to carefully selecting some edge or model projects. We might model best practices for the future and begin a large national dialog about what kind of infrastructure we need in place for the education system to make sure that we - the digital technologies don't increase the divide between those with access and those without.

CHIDEYA: And Jerone, you know, my Mom was a teacher for many years and I remember once going out with her and some of her kids for, you know a sort of enrichment field trip. And we saw this kid, and you know, it was really cold out. It was late fall, kind of struggling down the street without a proper coat on but carrying an enormous stack of video game cartridges. And sometimes it seems like the spending patterns in, you know, a lot of our communities are like we will buy the technology and will spend a lot it but learning about it is just not even on the table. What about, you know, the idea that people are investing in technology but only on a superficial level?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I think it's closer to say people are investing in what they know about. If you don't know what it means to be an engineer, then you can't pursue that train of a career. If you don't know that in theory you can actually download the code to create games with an Xbox 360, you'll never go there. So, you never have that kid who it sounds like if he knew about it back then, would have gone down the I-make-video-game world because obviously he loves games. So, if he didn't know that he could do that, then he's never going to. I think one of the big problems is getting it out there, what the possibilities are to all communities, not just those communities who already are conducive to that but to that line of thinking.

CHIDEYA: Mario, we talked about the billions of dollars that are being made in the industry. This has got to be a growth career. I mean, do you hope that some of the kids that you work with are going to go into, you know, not just other science and technology but, the gaming industry and actually start making some money?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, what we're shooting for at, first and foremost, is attitudinal change because it points right to his comment of how do we change the attitudes to move you from consumption to creation? If we can change your attitude at the middle school level, and inspire you to learn about people or exposure hasn't been really talked about too much in terms of role models. But that's another thing that's key, and then I'll answer your question. Like, Lani Johnson who is the African-American developer of the super soaker. When I show this on stage, the kids, when we do our show and we bring a super soaker on stage and we shoot water and we do science experiments on a laptop that can handle it, it blows the kids away that an African-American who was a former NASA engineer, an aerospace engineer, created and made millions off of the super soaker.

When you show them Jerome Solomon, who created or led the team of the video "Transformers," and the development of those characters, and that they have 10 million polygons, which is geometry language, now you have kids engaged. So, yes. I want to see us change the industry. I want to see us, more importantly, change the pipeline, and we have a lack of diversity in a lot of careers but specifically in the video game industry, we're looking at 5.1 percent of African-Americans in that field. So, we need to change that and get more women into the science and technology stream as well.

CHIDEYA: Tara, what about, you know, the practical applications for economic development? I mean, you know, you are obviously dealing primarily at this point in an educational context. But, what kind of - not just in terms of people's individual careers but, you know, overall, what could this do for society if people actually do enter this pipeline of creativity?

Dr. MCPHERSON: I think those kind of creative and innovative jobs are the hope for Americans economic future, right now because those kind of jobs are very difficult to outsource or send overseas. My husband owns a video and animation company and the creative design aspects stay here. Even engineering might be shipped overseas but being able to think creatively and have design literacy, to understand how systems are organized, how the back end and front end of computers interact with each other are very important skills for the future. And ones we do a disservice to our young people, when we're not teaching science and math in a way that fires their imaginations, to make those connections on their own.

CHIDEYA: Jerone, what do you hope for your kids? I mean, what's your hope for the students you're teaching?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I really wish I could rewind her last sentence. Because that's, functionally, exactly what we attempt to do in the schools. Really what we're shooting for and we're hoping is going to occur is, as real, letting the students know what is actually available. If you ask the average 14 or 15 year-old, how do you become a video game designer or even, what is an engineer? They have no clue. It's our job as technology teachers to let them know, hey, this is a possibility. You can do this. And more importantly, to let all kids know from all background in all places. The big thing that we - I think we need to shift is having the parents who have this knowledge, bring that knowledge back to the urban areas.

Bring that knowledge back to the minority neighborhood and say hey, we need to have this in our schools. If you're in Dallas, you need to have the Infinity Project in all of your schools. If you are in California, you need to have Dream, Create, Go in your schools. Not only the affluent schools, but the lower income schools as well so that those students are exposed to it. Once they're exposed to it, they'll get the hook. They will do it themselves at that point. Once you know it's a possibility. But if you don't know it's a possibility as I mentioned earlier you can never go down that road.

ARMSTRONG: That's right.

CHIDEYA: All right guys. Thanks so much.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

Dr. MCPHERSON: Thank you.

Mr. MITCHELL: Thank you, ma'am.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Jerone Mitchell who teaches computer science, engineering and statistics at W.T. White High School in Dallas, Texas. Tara McPherson, an associate professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. She's also a researcher for the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and learning initiative and she was here with me at NPR West. And Mario Armstrong, News and Notes tech guru. He's put together a program dedicated to inspiring students called Dream, Create, Go. And next on News and Notes, we've got the latest from Lifestyles and Trend contributor Alison Samuels. Plus, we take a look at Black fatherhood.

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