Serious Gaming: 'Learn Math or Die Trying'

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"This reaches more kids than anything else I've ever done," said Wendy Hall, now an instructional technology specialist at Piney Grove Middle School, part of Georgia's highly rated Forsyth County Schools system. She's talking about an action-packed video game called Dimenxian, from educational gaming company Tabula Digita. The game's motto: "Learn math or die trying."

Last year, the district tried out the software at several middle schools, including Riverwatch Middle School, according to Jill Hobson, director of instructional technology at Forsyth County Schools. With 31 suburban schools and about 32,000 students in K-12, the district ranks high in academic performance and is a leader in instructional technology, both in Georgia and nationally.

As a result of its success the first year, the district is going forward with Tabula Digita's Evolver game pack throughout all of its middle schools this year. That's despite the fact, Hobson said, that there are few examples yet of other schools using the product: "We feel like we're forging the trail here." Her research has turned up no other educational gaming product for middle school grades anything like the ones offered by Tabula Digita, however. "It's in a class by itself," she said. In fact, Dimenxian, Tabula Digita's first release, won the prestigious Macworld 2006 Editors' Choice award last year.

For her part, Hall can't say enough good things about the software. She taught algebra for 14 years before becoming an instructional technology specialist this year, and knows how tough it is to instill algebra concepts in middle-schoolers. "If you can get students in, especially low achievers, and get them hooked, you've got them," she said of the gaming software.

Last year, she witnessed the power of the game when she introduced Dimenxian to her eight graders as an algebra teacher and math department chair for Forsyth County Schools. Skeptical initially, Hall became a believer when she showed the software to students, then watched them begin to grasp algebra concepts simply by playing. "It was an amazing thing. They started really understanding [the concepts]. They started seeing patterns. 'Every time I push y equals 2, I get a horizontal line.' It was almost self-learning.... They would have never ever gotten this by sitting and doing worksheets."

"It has been a powerful tool," Hobson confirmed. "For the kids, it's very motivating; it's helping them expand their understanding."

Hobson emphasized that the product doesn't change the math concepts that are being taught. The year before adopting Tabula Digita, a group of Georgia schools had already been working toward changing the way they were teaching math, to take better advantage of instructional technology tools. "It's not that we're conceptually losing parts of math or making it easier," Hobson stressed. Rather, "we believed we could actually make [math] a richer experience. Kids would have better conceptual understanding of math through the use of tools, rather than just doing problems from a book."

In Dimenxian, students can play alone or compete with each other to collect "power balls," neutralize others--"We don't call it shooting," Hall said--and subsequently move the balls onto a grid. In the process, students learn algebra concepts that, Hall said, are challenging to teach to eight-graders at best.

One interesting aspect of using the game in class, Hall said: The noise level drops to almost nothing. "When we played Dimenxian, there was complete silence, except for ... an occasional 'wa-hoo!'" she said. "It was the most manageable class ever."

The district was careful about explaining the gaming approach to parents before launching the software in the classroom. Riverwatch Middle School Principal Terri North held meetings with parents to discuss the approach and invited parents to the school to see it in action. In the end, parents were fine with the product, Hall said.

When using Dimenxian was proposed, Hall admitted, even she had trouble getting past the "game" moniker. But her first experience convinced her that students could quickly learn important concepts from the software.

This year, as instructional technology specialist at a different school, she is introducing Evolver. It's a new game from Tabula Digita that introduces more pre-algebra and algebra concepts than Dimenxian, including decimals, percents, fractions, square roots, prime numbers, and greatest common factors.

Another way the software has surprised Hall: the amount of teamwork it inspires. Students can play together in groups and could eventually even play other classes, district schools, or schools in other states. Last December, Hall said, a team of four students from Forsyth County played a team from an Orlando school.

The teamwork seems to evolve by itself, Hall said. "It might be students that you've never think of working together." Other skills the software teaches, she said, include thinking quickly, working together, and making decisions with consequences.

The way Hall said she sees it, technology and students fit together naturally. "This is their world," she said.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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