Gamification and STEM Outreach

Kids and adults get excited about STEM fields through gamification, the art of learning huge amounts of information through games.

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SWE Leadership Summit Update

During interviews for SWE Magazine’s Winter 2016 article “STEM + Arts = STEAM!” engineering consultant and poet Montanez Wade; poet and multidisciplinary artist Thandiwe Shiphrah; physics and physical science teacher Yvette Tolliver; and NASA engineer Virginia Tickles, Ph.D., sparked a tremendous discussion of what the arts contribute to STEM outreach and teaching. We continue it here.

Many years later, Montanez Wade still sounds surprised. “He walked in, gave us a group of clues, and said, ‘I’m outta here. Give me a 20-minute head start, then come find me.’ And he was gone! Half of us hadn’t even noticed what he looked like – we didn’t even know our way around the campus yet – and he threw us a problem that immersed us in the environment. We learned a ton about our surroundings, hands on, while we were hunting him down.”

This Stanford “professor of gamification,” as he was known, was tasked with teaching STEM majors in engineering and medicine more effective ways to absorb the huge amounts of information their studies demanded. “His idea was that it’s more fun to learn 10,000 things when it’s a game, rather than learning them by rote,” Wade said. It was a lesson she took to heart.

We all know the value of hands-on learning, but we seldom think of the quantum leap students can take when we cross discipline with creative exploration. The more STEM connects with the arts, the more young people show passion for the subject, surprising teachers with their inventions, quick grasp of complex ideas, and thirst for new knowledge. Even with difficult subjects, an assist from an art form can come from an unexpected place, and yield unexpected results.

Take a computer science major at Ohio State University, who was able to test out of introductory Japanese, thanks to a childhood passion for anime, graphic novels, and video games. That student is ahead of the curve, pursuing a career in video and virtual reality gaming – and this is just one example. Not only do kids and adults love the arts, but the arts turn out to be an effective tool for immersive, self-directed learning.

Gamification works for all ages

If kids learn through play, why can’t adults? “Turns out when grandkids send emails, grandparents learn technology!” Wade laughed.

While grading papers in a Nashville, Tennessee, coffee shop one day, Wade noticed a group of nontechnically inclined women a few tables over, chatting about their frustrations with email, smartphones, and video streaming. Unable to resist, Wade went over to them and offered to help out. Not only was she able to instruct them, but she’s been a member of their breakfast club ever since.

Making computer science fun for kids and adults, by using MIT’s App Inventor and Scratch to make simple Androidܢ programs and games that tell original stories, is just one of the things Wade does. (Scratch, in particular, comes in junior and adult versions that can be used anywhere, with few technical requirements.) She’s also working with universities in Tennessee on grants for teaching girls programming.

A person who happily mixes art with science in a wealth of different communities, Wade draws scientists, poets, grad students, teachers, engineers, visual artists, and musicians into her circle. One of her frequent collaborators, Thandiwe Shiphrah, uses poetry, music, and literary devices such as analogy, metaphor, and alliteration to spark brainstorming and creativity in students of all ages and disciplines. Shiphrah and her husband have developed a project called “Why Not Make Something Up?” “It’s a music and poetry composition, where we get a group of middle-school and high school kids, using handheld instruments to compose music from scratch. I might give them a chord to respond to and they create their own poetry and music, a sort of sound collage. Everybody’s contribution is important; even if someone is doing a repetitive sound, it can be central to a whole composition. Even if you’re doing a small thing, it’s important to the whole. The process happens over four days, ending with a performance.”

You might not think at first glance that a program like Shiphrah’s is related to science or engineering. Look again. “Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Wade and Shiphrah emphasized. “Good design and good ideas don’t either. Learning to listen, explore, and create artistically can spark ideas for solving technical problems.”

Try it. Take an art form, such as storytelling, painting, or music, and use it to teach a technical concept. See what happens!

Coming up next: More STEAM stories and outreach ideas…

Kulture Kids: Teaching STEM Through the Arts

Kulture Kids, founded in 1999 by teacher, performer, and master storyteller Robin Pease, offers a performance-based method of teaching core subjects to kids of all ages. Based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Pease tours schools across the U.S., bringing an exciting blend of multicultural, multidisciplinary learning to the classroom.

From 2010 to 2015, I had the pleasure of writing and co-directing productions with Pease at Andrew J. Rickoff Elementary, an inner-city Cleveland school. Among the subjects we touched on over the years were social studies, math, climate science literature, geography, evolution, and monarch migration. Working on grants, we reached thousands of kids, many of them several years in a row.

My takeaway is this: You can teach first-, second-, and third-graders the key elements of the water cycle (condensation, precipitation, collection, and evaporation) a lot more effectively if you make it fun. Kids love the arts, and if you let first-graders dance, sing, and act precipitation, collection, evaporation, and condensation, BAM – they understand the water cycle and they’ll never forget it. Three years later, they still sing it to us whenever they see us in the halls.

Under the direction of Kulture Kids visual artist Wendy Mahon, the children designed and made their own costumes out of industrial coffee filters, cupcake liners, paper, and glue.

Using music, dance, theater, and visual arts, we created a play that demonstrated the water cycle. Here are a few images from what’s become a Kulture Kids classic.

Treat yourself and listen to the original Water Cycle Song, written by a teacher.

Migrating to the stage

Another Kulture Kids production I helped write and direct featured the evolution of the archaeopteryx into the birds of today, with a finale of original song and dance illustrating monarch migration. (Butterflies were made out of paint-stirring sticks donated by Lowe’s, and construction paper). When I penned an archaeopteryx rap for our three first-grade classes, little did I know that by the end of our four weeks of rehearsal, they not only would understand that these creatures became the very first birds, but they would be able to spell the word! (Later, I was told that when the kids went to the aviary at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo that spring, they explained the archaeopteryx to their very surprised tour guide!)

Proof positive that kids love the arts – and when you mix them with STEM subjects, learning deepens and they learn to love science even more.

All photo credits: Victor Dufresne, Kulture Kids (

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