Sixth grade students at Quest to Learn, a New York City public school, recently got a two-week break from regular class work to build a giant Rube Goldberg machine. The project, for example, required students to use physics and geometry skills to build a complex scheme of pulleys and tubes to accomplish the simple act of popping a balloon.
Quest to Learn and its sister school in Chicago are among the only schools in the country organized around principles of games and connected learning. The Rube Goldberg exercise was a “boss level” task—a term that refers to the difficult battle against a villain at the end of many video games. The project was designed to synthesize everything the students learned about physics, simple machines and art during the fall semester.
The New York school, for students in grades six through 12, was founded in 2009 by the New York City Department of Education and Institute of Play, a nonprofit learning design studio that works to get students more enthusiastic about their studies.
“Education is something that vies for time with the things kids like to do out of school, like video games,” says Ilena Parker, spokesperson for Institute of Play. “We’re bringing games not just into the curriculum but into the fundamental design of the school.”
Each of the school year’s three trimesters are guided by a game that brings together elements of all the courses the students take. For example, on the first day of sixth grade, students are introduced to a shrunken scientist who is lost inside a human body. Throughout the semester, students take skills learned in math and science such as organ systems to help the scientist navigate his way through the body.
Quest to Learn teachers work with game designers during free periods to create a games-based curriculum for their classrooms. Activities may be computer-based, such as creating and editing a physics video tutorial for a group of inventors, or book-based, such as converting fractions into decimals to break a piece of code found in a library book.
Game design teaches students to make rules for a game and develop the process players need to follow to finish the game or solve a puzzle. Students also learn to evaluate the performance of the game and then make improvements.
Students are given time to play and experiment with the games, and their ideas receive ongoing feedback from teachers and peers. Students often work with models and simulations, such as a computer-based bridge-building game that allows students to test the laws of physics.
Quest to Learn received a “B” grade in New York City’s official ratings for 2012-13. Attendance is high, and most students scored average or above average on state standardized tests, Parker says. More importantly, students are honing skills like collaboration and creativity, which are not easily measured by tests but are needed for today’s workforce, she adds.
“For administrators, it’s about understanding how games can be used to improve learning outcomes and finding the right tools to implement them in the classroom,” Parker says. “It’s a great way to open up new types of interactions between students and teachers.”