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Nifty Fifty – Bring a Top Scientist to your Middle or High School

Dr. Len Annetta

Years Participated: Nifty Fifty 2010, Nifty Fifty 2012, Nifty Fifty 2013/2014, Nifty Fifty 2014/2015
Annetta Len

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The Future of Classroom Learning: Serious Computer Games For Science Students


Let’s talk Serious Gaming. No, not the kind you’d see at a high-stakes football or basketball game, but rather something that could be coming soon to a classroom near you.

A growing number of educational researchers are working with manufacturers of computer games to create a new brand of “serious games.” This technology has the potential to significantly enhance classroom learning in science and other areas for students, especially those from “Net Gen”-- the current generation of young students who have grown up with high tech computers and whose tech skills are usually miles ahead of their teachers and parents. Len Annetta, associate professor of science education at North Carolina State University, is a leader in the Serious Game movement and he and his team are already working with colleagues at Harvard University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and other major universities to create educationally focused games.

"We want to get kids to use the skill sets they have gained while playing computer games and apply them to learning," says Len, a former high school science teacher in Maryland. At North Carolina State University, he now specializes in research exploring how different distant learning approaches impact science achievement, and how varying technologies in instruction (such as video games) can aid teaching and student learning. Says Len: “Current research suggests Net Gen students are more likely to engage in online games than in interacting with other students or the instructor when in face-to-face learning environments. Many public schools especially lack up-to-date technology in the classroom, contributing to an uphill battle to engage their students.”

Classroom computer gaming programs also look and work like conventional video games, adds Len, which may explain their potent ability to attract and motivate kids. In addition, teachers benefit as well, he says. The gaming programs will allow them to readily assess students in real time during the learning process. For example, Len and his colleagues are currently working on video games that measure students' scientific knowledge and research skills before, during, and after they participate in a science-related video game or test.

Len, who grew up in Lehman, PA has long had a keen interest in both science and education, including exploring the latest technologies to reach students in rural and underserved communities.

He earned his Bachelor’s of Science degree in Physical Science from Salisbury University as well as his Master’s degree in Teaching. He then went to the University of Missouri for his Ph.D. in Science Education. “My interest in exploring video games as a teaching and learning tool and as a vehicle for synchronous online instruction,” says Len, “actually evolved out of my Ph.D. dissertation on distance education strategies.”

The results of his dissertation suggested that distance learning that used synchronous interaction (technology that allows both the learner and teacher to see, hear and speak with each other) was most effective when learning science, but until recently achieving this was only possible through videoconferencing technology. “As technology, including the World Wide Web, continued to emerge,” he says, “it became obvious to me that there needed to be a strategy to deliver science content, synchronously, over the Internet.”

Now, two separate grants through North Carolina State have enabled him to design and create a synchronous, online 3D virtual environment f for distant learning courses offered at the university.

In addition, with a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, he and his team have created another seminal project in virtual learning called HI FIVES (Highly Interactive Fun Virtual Environments in Science). This initiative explores the viability of using video games as a supplement to science instruction in grades 5-9 and seeks to teach both teachers and students to design and build multiplayer games that comply with state and national science and mathematics standards. This project was a springboard to another $4 million in grant projects including GRADUATE (students creating games as part of the North Carolina graduation requirement) and STIMULATE (games to train teachers).

“Ultimately, it is our hope through this work that students will gain a greater appreciation for science, pursue higher levels of science coursework and eventually seek careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.,” says Len. “For teachers, the tools and training we’re developing will provide a way to take ownership in curriculum design and find a fun, innovative approach to integrating current technology in their classroom.”

Listen to the 2015 podcast with Dr. Len Annetta speaking to Center City Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Click here for more information about Dr. Annetta.