Scott Walker helps 8th-grade student Micha Logan make a computer game with Scratch software during his game design class at Bate Middle School (Danville Ind.). Logan's game, Jurassic Cat, let's the gamer play a cat who has been transported back in time and has to avoid being eaten by dinosaurs. Photo by Amy Wallot, Oct. 7, 2011

Scott Walker helps 8th-grade student Micha Logan make a computer game with Scratch software during his game design class at Bate Middle School (Danville Ind.). Logan’s game, Jurassic Cat, let’s the gamer play a cat who has been transported back in time and has to avoid being eaten by dinosaurs. Photo by Amy Wallot, Oct. 7, 2011

By Matthew Tungate

Danville Independent school district and the University of Kentucky’s Digital Design and Learning P-20 Innovation Lab are using web-based video games to provide elementary and middle school students enrichment in mathematics, reading, science and social studies.

But students are not just playing games – they’re designing them as well.

The classes, called GameQuest, are part of Danville Kids University (DKU), which began in 2003 as a series of Saturday morning enrichment classes for elementary students, said DKU Coordinator Kathy Belcher.

Last fall, 80 3rd through 5th graders spent four hours on five Saturdays learning how to create games using Scratch, a free, open-source programming language created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The students also critiqued existing games for their entertainment and educational value, said Joan Mazur, an associate professor specializing in instructional systems design and technology at the UK College of Education and Digital Design and Learning P-20 Innovation Lab.

This fall, enrollment has grown to 96, after the program proved so successful it was expanded to include middle school students, Belcher said.        

Mazur said new students learned Scratch and evaluated existing games, and returning students worked on creating more complex and challenging games. In the spring, students will work with teachers to incorporate some of the games into their classes.

Belcher said GameQuest grew out of Danville Superintendent Carmen Coleman challenging DKU in 2010 “to offer innovative classes in technology to students and to provide an avenue for teachers to learn and practice teaching strategies using technology.”

Coleman connected Belcher with Mazur to collaborate on the project, which is paid for through tuition fees and funds from the Danville Schools Education Foundation and the Danville Board of Education, Belcher said.

Coleman said DKU has been enhanced by UK’s participation.

“It is a fantastic program. It not only provides rich learning experiences for students, but also serves as a great venue for teachers to use to try new ideas before implementing them in their day-to-day classroom practices,” she said. “For instance, DKU was a great way to learn more about how digital game design could be used as a vehicle for helping students learn required content. DKU provides a risk-free way for teachers to try new and different approaches on a smaller scale.”

Mazur said GameQuest is just the kind of project for which the P-20 Innovation Lab was created.

“This has been quite a pay-it-forward project,” she said. “I really like doing this kind of research-to-practice-to-research arc.”

Why gaming?

Children have always used games to play and learn, Mazur said, from basic social games like “Ring Around the Rosie” to board games like “Monopoly.” But today’s students are digital natives who have technology integrated into their lives.

So gaming has two instructional applications: one is for instruction and the other is as instruction. “And we can do both with these kids,” Mazur said.

A key skill students learn from designing games is how to problem-solve, she said. If they want an action on their screen and don’t know how to make it happen, they can go to the Scratch social networking site, find a game that has a similar action, download that game to look at the script and then modify it for their game, Mazur said.

“That is the global shared knowledge at work,” she said. “It has many, many sophisticated dimensions of next-generation learning – and the kids are just trying to have fun to make a puzzle game or a race game.”

The language itself requires knowledge of mathematics, geometry and physical science, she said. Students have to apply what they know, such as the x/y axis, algebraic formulations and the number line.

“There’s a wealth of embedded, fairly sophisticated mathematics that has to be applied to make the game design work,” Mazur said.

Jill Mullins, a 6th-grade science teacher at Bate Middle School who taught Scratch at DKU, said the program was difficult for her to learn. “Actually, sometimes the students taught me things that I didn’t know and that they have discovered on their own,” she said.

The class also allows students get constant feedback on their problem-solving based on whether their games work or not, Mazur said.

“Kids learn that problem-solving is hard, ‘sometimes I have to fail to succeed.’ Those are really important learning lessons if you’re going to have self-directed, motivated learners,” she said. “I love the idea that learning should be fun, but the truth of it is, real learning takes some work.”

Bate Middle School teachers who taught students in the program said they saw how designing the games engaged students in learning. 

Sarah Waite, a 7th-grade mathematics teacher, said the students “soaked up the interactive gaming like a sponge. The entire time we were working on gaming, they were engaged, curious and very apt to try new things. They constantly asked questions and became involved in the gaming world of Scratch.”

Scott Walker, technology resource teacher, said he was very interested to see how the elementary students would take to game design.

“The 3rd and 4th graders love to explore the program and find out everything it can do. They rarely get frustrated like older students, and ask tons of questions,” he said. “The 5th graders, on the other hand, tend to be more direct in what they are trying to do. They get a particular task in mind and then set out to do it. They also tend to get more frustrated when they can’t get it to do what they want.”

Yolanda Weathers, a 6th-grade mathematics teacher, said she liked that Scratch allows students to make choices and create animated characters that can do a variety of things.

“It was intriguing to see the students create games, trivia questions and mazes that linked with the common core standards,” she said.

Besides designing games, students also learned from the games they reviewed each week, Mazur said.

DKU teachers organized the games after reviewing them for content and appropriateness.

Students had a list of games they could use and review, and they could play three or four a day, she said. Teachers then took the highest-rated games and made a brochure for other teachers.

Mazur said DKU teachers received a day of professional development to prepare for GameQuest: half of a day learning about Scratch, and the other half working on the “Using and Choosing” segment to find appropriate games. She said a key collaboration strategy was to leverage the teachers’ expertise and understanding of standards-based instruction.

“So they developed 50 percent of the project,” she said. “They selected games across content areas that students used and evaluated, and they developed a core set of content-based games that then could be taken back into their classrooms.”

All of that is part of how the Digital Design and Learning P-20 Innovation Lab is supposed to provide classroom support through collaboration and classroom coaching, Mazur said.

“We want to effect real change, create capacity to continue on with an innovation and to leverage the talents, skill and expertise of Kentucky teachers,” she said. “In order to do this we need to understand the information ecology in the school/classroom – not just the technologies – but the people, value, practices and systems that are in place and leverage and expand those capacities. But ultimately, the goal is for P-20 collaboration – researchers working with the teachers, parents, students and community members to build schools that are centers for learning, growth and success.”

Joan Mazur,, (859) 257-1257
Kathy Belcher,, (859) 238-1300