In schools throughout the nation, kids are zoning residential neighborhoods and bulldozing high-rises.

These young urban planners are playing SimCityEDU, a version of the classic computer game repurposed for the classroom by GlassLab Games. The Bay Area–based nonprofit makes commercial-quality digital learning games currently used in thousands of schools.

GlassLab game players hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills by, say, designing a virtual city that comfortably houses and transports all its residents without destroying the environment. And in an educational landscape where games-based learning is gaining traction, the data GlassLab provides to educators makes the games stand out. In a previous article, we wrote about how GlassLab’s real-time assessment features can give teachers new insight into students’ decision-making processes.

But for teachers to benefit from GlassLab’s products, they have to be willing to try them.

GlassLab aims to identify what teachers want by employing and soliciting input from a collaborative crew of educators, game designers, and scientists. The GlassLab Teacher Network gives participating educators the opportunity to provide direct feedback to the company and share lesson plans with their peers.

“We want to change the content, depth, and nature of interactions in the classroom with our games,” said Seth Corrigan, GlassLab research scientist. “And we don’t have a shot at that unless we’re helping students and teachers solve the problems they’re facing.”

To do so, GlassLab establishes robust communication lines between its staff and customers, explained Evan Rushton, an instructional designer at GlassLab and former teacher.

“Building community around game-based learning requires reaching out into the media space that reaches teachers—whether that be webinars, news articles, conferences, social media, or networking events,” said Rushton. “Our hope is to establish a relationship with our champion teachers and help to cultivate a supportive community among teachers using our games in their classrooms.”

Many teachers who use the products say they fit naturally into established curricula—or help communicate lessons kids previously couldn’t grasp.

SimCityEDU. Screenshot/ GlassLab Games.

SimCityEDU. Screenshot/ GlassLab Games.

Social studies teacher Matthew Farber said he uses SimCityEDU as a systems learning tool. Through mapping a city, his students develop an understanding of how seemingly disparate ideas and actions are interconnected—or how one decision affects another decision down the line.

The lessons translate across the disciplines, Farber explained. He had his middle school students figure out the most efficient placement of SimCity school bus stops—an exercise requiring lots of trial and error. When students saw how their city plans improved with each tweak to the design, they understood how their writing or reading could improve with each edit or re-read, Farber said.

Other games are designed specifically for humanities classrooms. In Argubot Academy EDU, players arm robots with all the elements of a persuasive argument and see how well they fare in “battle.”

“GlassLab’s games help teachers engage their students in conversations about decisions made in authentic problem-solving spaces,” Farber said.

A forthcoming GlassLab game tackles proportional reasoning, a concept that often stumps students.

Before designing the game, staff at GlassLab conducted a thorough “needs assessment,” talking with teachers, administrators, and parents; poring over test results; and reading the literature. Then, they got to work creating a product that’s more intuitive and engaging for kids than traditional math lessons are.

“Students are knee-deep in specific cultural forms, representations, and procedures that make sense to adults,” Corrigan explained. “But there’s often little reason to think they are the best tools to help students learn with.”

So it’s crucial that the game developers engage in conversation with teachers about what does and doesn’t work in the classroom.

For Rushton, his experience as an educator not only helps him design thoughtfully, but also informs his general approach to the job.

“I seek out collaboration and tackle problems with the help of other team members as a result of my experience in the classroom,” he said.

NOTE: GlassLab Games is currently seeking teachers and students to participate in a field study for a new game—Creature Caretaker—from April 6-15, 2015. The trial will require a total of 5-7, 30-minute sessions of implementation, with 3-5 sessions reserved for gameplay and 1-2 sessions for surveys. More ›

By Natalie Orenstein
Top Photo/ GlassLab Games