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Washington teacher Tammie Schrader is so enthusiastic about computer games in education that she thinks they can be used to teach programming skills that lead to college — starting in middle school.

Canadian teacher Justin Holladay wrote a few simple, tablet-based games to help his students practice math skills, and when they caught on, he started his own company to create more of them.

And the University of Washington’s Zoran Popovic got more than 4,000 Washington students to master linear equations this spring by playing a computer game for just a few hours.

The growing availability of inexpensive tablet computers and a new generation of young teachers who grew up playing on a computer has spurred interest in games for serious purposes. This week, Schrader, Holladay and Popovic were among those who gathered in Redmond to talk about the future of educational games at a four-day “Serious Play” conference at DigiPen Institute of Technology.

“Six or seven years ago, selling games to schools was brutal,” said David Martz, of Muzzy Lane Software, a Boston company that produces games for publishers such as McGraw-Hill. Now, he said, schools are interested in the promise of games — perhaps because gaming is so much more mainstream.

One of the most successful examples, for adults and students alike, is the UW Center for Game Science’s Foldit, which challenges users to help uncover the structures of biologically important proteins.

Players around the world have made a number of important discoveries about the structures of proteins just by playing the game.

The UW lab has recently turned to K-12 education, and is “using the same mechanisms to reach high levels of mastery for kids,” said Popovic, the center’s director.

Kindergarten algebra

In June, the center helped create a statewide math competition for Washington students. More than 4,000 students participated in Algebra Challenge, and together solved more than 390,000 equations over a five-day period.

They did so by playing DragonBox, an algebra game created by a Norwegian company and modified by the Center for Game Science. The modifications allowed teachers to review their students’ results in real time.

The modified game also has an infinite number of levels of difficulty, based on algorithms written by the UW, that allow the game to adapt to a student’s skill level. That gives the student more opportunities to practice, and
led to a much higher success rate.

Popovic said about 93 percent of students were able to master linear equations after playing the game for an average of about 1.5 hours.

“We were able to show that even kindergartners and first-graders can master solving equations,” Popovic said. “This is shockingly good,” he said — especially for elementary school, where algebra concepts usually are not taught.

The Algebra Challenge will be repeated in Norway in the fall, and Popovic said he’ll be able to reach virtually every student in the country, since Norwegian students are all equipped with their own computers.

An Algebra Challenge is also in the works for students in Florida and Maryland.

Good games

Software and education companies have tried for many years to meld youngsters’ passion for computer games to compelling educational content, without overwhelming success.

Popovic thinks the first efforts to wed games to education fell flat because they were created by commercial companies more interested in selling a product than seeing students master a skill.

One of the advantages of being a researcher, he said, is being able to take a long time to build a game, analyzing the results along the way.

Popovic thinks the work he’s doing with algebra can eventually be extended to much of the math curriculum in grades K-8, and can also be used for science and early language learning.

Teachers say there are some pretty good games in the marketplace now.

Holladay, the math teacher from Magrath, Alberta, began converting paper-based math games to the iPad, building games that allowed students to compete with each other and giving him instant feedback on their progress.

The games reinforced the lessons he was teaching, and his students had fun playing, he said. “They were a lot more engaged.”

Tammie Schrader, a middle-school science teacher in the Eastern Washington town of Cheney in Spokane County, uses a game that teaches students about dominant and recessive genes in plants, helping her students understand genetics.

Another program allows students to observe an oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange at the cellular level. “It’s a very different experience from looking at cells in a microscope,” she said. “And, you do both.”

Schrader, who has gotten state and private grant money to buy 12 iPads for her classroom for the next school year, came to the Redmond conference to learn more about serious games.

She’s working with other Cheney educators to create a pathway for students to begin learning computer programming in middle school, using games, then progress to a higher level in high school and, ultimately, college.

“Kids want to participate, want to be engaged” when a computer game is part of the lesson, Schrader said. “That is a lovely thing.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.