RIT Teams with Microsoft to Help Form Games for Learning Institute

New York University-based institute will use video games as teaching tools

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Video games may be coming to a middle school classroom near you. Rochester Institute of Technology has teamed with Microsoft, New York University and a consortium of other colleges and universities to form the Games for Learning Institute, a first-of-its-kind multidisciplinary gaming research alliance that’s set to prove that video games can make great learning tools.

“Technology has the potential to help reinvent the education process, and excite and inspire young learners to embrace science, math and technology,” says Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft. “The Games for Learning Institute is a great example of how technology can change how students learn, making it far more natural and intuitive.”

The institute’s goal is to provide scientific evidence that gaming can be an effective way to teach middle school students math and science.

“We think gaming is an appropriate and interesting gateway to the study of these skills for this particular audience,” says Andy Phelps, director of RIT’s game design and development program. “We think this, but through this institute, we’re going to prove it.”

Microsoft, which has a longstanding relationship with RIT, approached Phelps and asked RIT to join the institute. Phelps agreed, sensing a great opportunity for graduate students to get hands-on professional experience.

“Our students are going to be building the engines that drive these games,” says Phelps. “We’re going to be the technical resource for the institute.”

Once the games are completed, they’ll be offered to the New York City school district for integration into its science and math curriculum. Phelps suspects that, eventually, the games will also be offered to Rochester area school districts.

Other institute partners include Columbia University, the City University of New York, Dartmouth College, Parsons, Polytechnic Institute of NYU and Teachers College.

Microsoft Research is providing $1.5 million to the institute. The other partners are matching Microsoft’s investment for a combined $3 million. Funding covers the first three years of research. The institute will work with a range of student populations yet focus on underrepresented middle-school students, such as girls and minorities.

Video games, with their popularity and singular ability to engage young people, are showing promise as a way to excite and prepare the Net generation, the current crop of students who have grown up on technology. This generation, though well-versed in using technology for social networking and Internet research, is continuing a decline in proficiency and interest in math and sciences — the very skills needed to prepare them for the new demands and requirements of the 21st century.

“While educational games are commonplace, little is known about how, why or even if they are effective,” said John Nordlinger, senior research manager for Microsoft Research’s gaming efforts. “Microsoft Research, together with NYU and the consortium of academic partners, will address these questions from a multidisciplinary angle, exploring what makes certain games compelling and playable and what elements make them effective, providing critically important information to researchers, game developers and educators to support a new era of using games for educational purposes.”