Eric Klopfer, who heads an MIT enterprise that crafts computer-based learning tools for middle and high schoolers, has a unique naming approach for these programs.
“When I talk to teachers,” he notes, “I call what we’re developing simulations. When I talk to kids, I call them games.”
“Games” may fit better. Klopfer and his co-workers — including a changing but devoted cast of undergraduate programmers — want to use game-like tools to educate pupils who’ve grown up with commercial products.
Time was, notes Klopfer, an MIT associate professor, when “gamers” were relatively few. No more. “Today, most kids, even if they don’t play computer games, are part of a culture that’s immersed in them,” says the faculty member, whose academic home is the urban studies and planning department. “Our programs align with what they do outside of school.”
Though that gives Klopfer’s venture, called the Teacher Education Program (TEP), entrée into the academic lives of today’s pre-teens and teens, it’s just a start. That’s because his group’s programs, unlike industry’s, reflect ambitious educational aims. “We want the students to experience roughly what it is that scientists and engineers do in real life,” says Klopfer.
When the hardware used often consists of simple hand-held computers, that may seem a tough assignment. But by picking the right kinds of problems to simulate — the group’s programs focus on everything from genetics to toxic waste spills to how viral diseases spread — and making this specialized software as engaging as possible, the group is achieving vital progress.
DRAWN TO EDUCATION
Klopfer’s background may be close to ideal for what he does. Both the Long Island native’s parents were teachers. And while he was deeply interested in the life sciences as a child — his Cornell bachelor’s is in biology and University of Wisconsin Ph.D. in zoology — he also had a thing about computers.
At what would have been his peak gaming years, it was too early for sophisticated products. Still, he latched onto what he could. “I had my Apple II,” he says, “and I fit in with that first generation that really took an interest in games. Later, when I went to college, I was one of the few kids using a new technology called ’email.'”
His transition to educational endeavors began in grad school. “I was doing simulations of biological phenomena,” he notes, “and some of the faculty started including them in their courses.”
Klopfer taught high school for a year, then did a postdoctoral fellowship in education at the University of Massachusetts. So, when an MIT Media Lab professor involved in educational computing came knocking, he was ready.
Today, Klopfer is working hard at the core problem of how to make games both challenging and fun.
The challenging piece involves choosing the right kinds of problems: “We want the students not only to solve open-ended problems, but also to collaborate with each other and to work around a lot of messy constraints.”
Example: There’s been a big toxic waste spill at a school, and a student team’s assigned to deal with it. TEP’s program — which runs on hand-helds that allow the group’s members to beam data back and forth — lets the team go from data collection to analysis to solutions.
“The idea is to model the spill and figure out what to do about it,” says Klopfer. “They can collect virtual samples, interview virtual experts, and of course research topics like the health effects of the contaminants.”
To help make the effort engaging, meanwhile, the programmers may do things like locate the spill in the students’ own school, let them traverse the actual campus in search of certain information, and put in “real people” — for example, the school’s health and safety officer.
Klopfer works mostly with teachers, not the pupils who are the main beneficiaries of his group’s games. He does visit participating schools, though, and says it’s fun to see TEP’s approach in use.
“If they’re using hand-helds,” he notes, “there’s a lot of beaming going on.”
Klopfer’s group is currently working with schools in two areas: eastern Massachusetts, including some in Cambridge; and Santa Fe, N. M.
But Klopfer, who trains teachers at the rate of about 40 a year, also seeks to turn the trainees into trainers. “We’re learning the best way to help what is a relatively small number of teachers engage lots of their counterparts,” he notes.
The group is also increasingly focused on assessment. Anecdotal signs about the TEP approach, says Klopfer, are very positive. “We have middle school students who are doing stuff you’d expect advanced high school students to be doing,” he notes, “and the teachers we deal with tell us it works.”
But in an era of heavy emphasis on uniform testing, the game approach doesn’t always find favor. So, Klopfer is working with colleagues elsewhere to develop a large-scale assessment program.
Still, he’s convinced that his group’s approach works — and that a game-based approach has to be part of middle- and high-school education.
“What skills do we want kids to have?” he says. “Do we want them to be able to give rote solutions to different problems? Or do we want them to collaborate successfully on problems that are like what they’ll actually encounter?”
For Klopfer, the answer’s clear-cut. “I think ‘game’ has to stop being a four-letter word among educators,” he says, “and I think it will.”