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NMSU helps middle school students learn game programming and design

Some kids may want to spend the summer playing video games, but at New Mexico State University, youth game lab consultants are not only playing them, they are helping developers create the next generation of learning games.

A middle school student sings karaoke during a session of the Think Tank, held by New Mexico State University's Learning Games Lab. (NMSU photo by Margaret Kovar)

Middle school students from Las Cruces are testing elements of games created at NMSU, such as those in the popular Math Snacks series, as well as games and animations in nutrition, science and safety. Math Snacks help teach mathematical properties, such as number lines and multiplication, and include animations, games and iPad apps. The department's "Don't Be Gross" campaign is designed to help kids understand the importance of hand washing. The soon-to-be-released "Ninja Kitchen" gives kids the chance to practice safe food preparation behaviors, while playing a time-management game.

Participants, also called game lab consultants, learn how to be good game developers while providing valuable feedback to the researchers. A curriculum was created to help make the students better communicators, making for more efficient work during the sessions and more effective products.

"The sessions give the consultants the opportunity to experience different learning games, as well as design a game and its content," said Jesús Trespalacios, Think Tank instructor.

During the sessions, the consultants don't just play the games; they learn how people interact with them. The students test all aspects of the games, from the artwork to the storyboard to the level of humor. Themed days, such as Retro Day, Non-Standard Controller Day and Exercise Day, help students understand the differences in concepts between games, how to communicate with the developers and different game genres.

While learning about game concepts, students also gain computer skills from working with multimedia like PowerPoint, Photoshop and iMovie during the sessions.

Teachers and facilitators observe the students while they play the games. Students provide feedback about the games in several ways, including answering questions either by recording in a video closet or writing a blog. They also participate in focus group sessions.

The sessions culminate with participants developing their own math concept game. While designing and creating the whole game would take too long, the students do decide on game challenges, animations and flow. During the last session, each group presents their ideas to their peers as well as their parents.

"The students learn by designing and develop a more conceptualized understanding of math and game play. They are playing games - but they also are learning how to work with each other, how to design learning tools and how to use computers to do it," Trespalacios said.

"I enjoy playing games and it's fun being a consultant. Right now we're making a multiplication game called Multi-Parachute, where the characters have to get through a bunch of different obstacles," said Dylan Correa, an upcoming sixth-grader at Sierra Middle School.

Many of the games currently being developed target middle-school students, so this year's Think Tank sessions are held for grades six through eight. About 12-14 students will participate in each session this summer, which run until the end of July.

Michelle Garza, Learning Games Lab coordinator, knows the value of the summer Think Tank sessions.

"Our games are successful because of the research and testing we do in the Learning Games Lab," she said. "We test each of our games with four to five different groups of kids to ensure that it will be well-received when we release it. We want to make sure the kids are learning what they need to and that the games are fun and easy to use."

The Learning Games Lab develops games and educational tools for a diverse collection of content. They receive funding from several national grant programs and usually work with

partners across the U.S., turning university-based research into engaging learning tools. With funding from National Science Foundation grants, researchers examined what students seemed to have problems with the most, and then addressed the problem areas in the games. The design team always partners university-based researchers and educators with professional game developers to make tools that represent best learning practices with fun game play.

"It's a great opportunity for kids, as well as for our game developers here at NMSU. The kids learn by designing and playing games, and we learn more about making games that change how we learn," Garza said.