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NMSU promotes STEM-learning through Learning Games Lab 'think tanks'

Thanks to a summer program at New Mexico State University, local middle and high school students are getting the opportunity to test out iPad apps and video games this summer - all in the name of research.

Middle schools students brainstorm ideas for a comic book story during one of the summer sessions at NMSU's Learning Games Lab. (Photo by Isabel Rodriguez)

Local middle school students participate in one of this summer's "think tanks" at NMSU's Learning Games Lab. Part of their curriculum is to evaluate popular mainstream video games. (Photo by Isabel Rodriguez)

Students act as consultants and test out various NMSU-developed technologies during Learning Games Lab "think tank" sessions as they participate in various activities that aim to improve their writing, interpersonal and communication skills.

The program is presented by NMSU's Media Productions and engages students through new apps, computer software and educational video games. Participants have the opportunity to test and evaluate NMSU-developed software.

"It's always fascinating for me to get input from the people we're developing these games for," said Barbara Chamberlin, lab director. "As developers, it's easy for us to rely on our intuition about what works, but sometimes we're right and sometimes we're not. When we let the consultants be part of the design process - we allow them to test the game - that's when I know it's going to work. The consultants are actively engaged in making better products."

The student consultants will participate in six different think tank sessions throughout the summer, each of which has a featured topic or assignment. Many of the session modules are science, technology, engineering and math-related. A smaller group of students will continue sessions when they go back to school in the fall.

"The biggest benefit to the students is that they're increasing their 21st century skills," said Michelle Garza, senior research specialist and program coordinator. "They're consultants on our developments and we're teaching them to be game developers, but we want to make sure they're learning, too; they're formulating their writing, communication and presentation skills."

Learning Games Lab activities are part of the development work the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service does in creating educational games. The lab creates games for kids and adults on a wide range of content, such as math (mathsnacks.com), science (virtuallabs.nmsu.edu) and safety (dontbegross.com, treadsylvania.com, www.4-h.org/move-o-matic/).

The lab was opened to game consultants in 2003, though NMSU has been developing educational video games for more than 20 years. Growing with the times, the lab's staff has created games on laser discs, CD-ROM and everything in between.

"The research space was designed so we could engage middle schoolers in activities and help them develop skills," said Barbara Chamberlin, lab director. "We're always doing testing, and it can be hard getting access to people (who can act as game consultants). Students providing feedback is just a small part of their experience."

Chamberlin said she believes the department has learned how to ask the right questions, allowing student consultants to reflect and articulate how they feel about the different games.

Each game is tested at least once, she said, though one recent game went through as many as 60 sessions.

Garza also emphasized the importance of testing games as they're being developed, and ensuring that the games appeal to the age levels they're targeted at.

The first "think tank" session was held during the week of May 28 and saw local middle school students discussing themes of current popular video games and meeting NMSU game developers. They also took part in various hands-on activities, including creating their own comic strips and playing commercial learning games.

"These activities will increase students' knowledge of ever-growing technology and feed that passion," said Richard Martinez, program facilitator and Gadsden Middle School teacher. "They're already tech-savvy; they're just getting more exposure to technology."

This year is Martinez's second time working with the department on the summer program.

"Students become alive with technology, they're right at home with it," he said. "In education we're always looking for what we call that 'hook' - something students will relate to that we can translate into an educational setting. It's definitely a learning situation through gaming."

Upcoming sessions will include designing a board game and a final group project to showcase what they've learned from the program, using various apps as learning tools.

Approximately 20 students from the program will be selected to return throughout the school year, Garza explained.

"We always have stuff in development," she said. "We've designed a specific curriculum to teach kids how to be game evaluators."

Since its inception the department has developed about 40 different educational games, in addition to websites and apps.

The lab has collaborated with a few other universities and received funding from a range of organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation.

All games are designed as outreach efforts for use by parents and educators.

All of our games development work takes university-based research and helps people apply it in their lives," Chamberlin said.

Games produced at the lab range from environmental science curriculum to health and nutrition, from food preparation safety to water conservation.

In 2012, the Association for Communication Excellence in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Life and Human Sciences recognized the learning games lab in several categories, including professional development skills for the cooking game "Ninja Kitchen."

"Speed is important, but in this kitchen, safety comes first," is the game's tagline.

The popular Learning Games Lab think tank sessions are already booked for this summer, but more information about the programs offered, as well as the games developed at NMSU, is available at www.learninggameslab.org.