STEM subjects have been a magnet for game based learning, and there have been some incredible learning games produced for K-12 students to understand the sometimes difficult STEM content. Edheads is a non-profit online educational resource which is at the forefront of these cutting edge educational online games. The website provides free STEM games for K-12 students, and has been on a mission to make difficult concepts understandable through gaming. The site has become a go-to for many teachers around the world, with users from 218 different countries having visited the site, and over 12 million unique visitors in 2010.
Games to support critical thinking
Edheads games are a world apart from many free online STEM resources. The educational detail and content is of an incredibly high standard, with clear graphics and engrossing gameplay. Some of the free games available include:
Simple Machines (Grades 2 – 6)
Learning how machines work is a key part of any student’s education, and not just for the physics classroom. This game goes through simple and compound machines, how they work and how they should be used. It connects household objects such as lightbulbs, baseball bats and clocks to classic simple machine theories (gears, incline pane, wheel and axle, pulleys, screws and wedges). It also looks at compound machines using common household objects like the stapler, and asks multiple choice questions followed by animated answers to support the learning process.
Design a Cell Phone (Grades 5 – 8)
One of the most popular games on the site, this game lets students design and manufacture a cell phone for senior citizens. The game design is very cleverly done, with the gameplay divided up into Research, Design, Testing and Sales. Students have to follow this process which teaches them the practicalities for designing a product. By tapping into an object that most K-12 students have an obsession with, it is an excellent way of linking engineering processes with real world applications.
Deep Brain Stimulation Surgery (Grades 7 – 12)
This game investigates a patient with Parkinson ’s disease, and students help a virtual doctor with a surgical procedure to help control the patient’s movement disorder. The game begins by giving a background to the patient’s condition, and an outline of what the operation entails. It describes using excellent graphical detail the patient’s symptoms and the surgical procedure. Students must choose surgical implements to conduct the surgery, and the game has multiple choice questions throughout to keep students engaged with the content. The game is not only fascinating for students but for anyone interested in brain surgery. Real world images such as CT scans and surgery photos are included which links up virtual and real life scenarios.
We wanted to find out more about Edheads and spoke to Executive Director Gail Wheatley:
How does Edheads make life easier for teachers?
Teachers have told us that we are easy to use because they don’t have to buy licenses or DVDs in a tough economy, and they don’t have to load licenses or use DVDs when the computers are wiped and/or software is changed over the summer. We are always there and always free, so we are easy from a technical standpoint.
From a pedagogical standpoint, we have full teacher’s guides and assessments written by teachers built into most of our activities. Teachers are on the advisory panels that help create the activities so the activities are age appropriate and hit educational standards that teachers want help teaching. Many of the ideas for the games come from teachers, so again, we try to hit topics and concepts that teachers want.
Also, teachers would love to connect what they teach to the real world much more than they do, but it is a time consuming thing for them. They have to research real world problems, perhaps call in experts, and then build their lesson plans around the real world problem. With Edheads, we supply the real world problem and the connection to the curriculum. Teachers can keep teaching the lessons they have already developed and just incorporate our games into them, instead of starting over and trying to build an entirely new curriculum around the ties to careers and the real world.
How do students benefit from using the games on Edheads?
There is increased engagement, but there is also a different kind of engagement. We have a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support the fact that ADHD (those with real diagnoses) students often do better and learn more with Edheads’ games than they do in a regular classroom. We have seen this on several occasions with students that teachers thought would stop playing the game after a few minutes, or students that the teachers predicted would not finish a worksheet or quiz. In many instances, these students work harder and score higher than their typically high-performing peers.
The students also benefit simply by having the information presented in a different way. Teachers, text books, etc. have a particular way of presenting knowledge and building on it. Generally, this way is well tested and well thought out. However, this way is also divorced from applications, in many respects. Think of the way math is taught. 2 + 2 =4 – this is very abstract. Then you progress to some word problems that sort of have something to do with the world you live in daily, but they are presented as over-simplified problems where the variables are already established and provided (and no external variables – red herrings if you will) are provided.
An example would be the classic problem where two cars are traveling in the same direction and one wants to catch up to the other – calculate how fast the second one needs to go. In reality, you would just put your foot down harder on the gas pedal until you caught up! Think of another real world problem: you want to buy a house. There are 6,000 houses in 3,000 neighborhoods to choose from, with 10,000 finance options, 25 kinds of mortgages to choose from, etc., etc., head splitting etc. No one narrowed it down to houses that are exactly what you want and can afford, with financing that is competitive, and a mortgage that is good for you and makes sense with your financial situation. As the recent housing crisis proved, you have to do that for yourself and if you get it wrong, the consequences are huge.
Edheads presents knowledge from that real world perspective that includes
a lot of knowledge not included in school (like the fact that a real estate agent and the finance company are going to want to sell you a much more expensive house). Also, we combine knowledge in ways not typically seen in schools. For example, our surgery activities include all the anatomy of the given surgical area. In school, students typically learn systems separately – the bones, the blood vessels, the nerves, the muscles. We put that all together when a student virtually replaces a knee. Or genetics, disease processes, proteins and DNA replication are taught mostly separately in the classroom. We put it all together in Sickle Cell DNA to show how a genetic counselor would help a family with the disease in their history.
Why do you think game based learning is important for modern teachers?
Game based learning allows teachers to connect their curricula to the real world with greater ease. Information is also presented in a different way that benefits all students to a certain degree, but some students to a much greater degree. I would add to that the fact that teachers often learn new ways to teach and learn themselves.
We regularly get emails from teachers saying that we have given them new ways to present the material and have indirectly improved their teaching because they have new ways to think about things and are more excited and engaged themselves.
How have teachers practically used Edheads in their classroom?
Most teachers use our activities as complements to the curriculum. They will often open a unit with one of our games or finish it that way. In many instances, they use our games in ways we never intended. For instance, a 5th grade Columbus Schools teacher used our Design a Cell Phone game as the basis for an entire project based curriculum that is designed to be a fun, interactive review of all the math topics covered on the Ohio standardized test for 5th graders. She has them interview people of different ages to find out what they want in a cell phone, calculate percentages, draw charts and graphs to support their ‘recommendations’ for cell phone design, etc. We were pretty impressed with that!
Also, the math in our Crash Scene Investigation is for high school students, but many 4th grade teachers use the first part of the activity to talk about forensic science and scientific processes. We have heard of several teachers that incorporate our Predict the Weather (one half of the Weather game) activity as part of daily weather reports that elementary students deliver to the school as part of the opening announcements for the day.
All of the games on the site meet US state and national standards, giving reassurance that the games are tried, tested and worthwhile. The games themselves are created through partnerships with universities, school systems, individuals and corporations who help research, design and test the games.
It is obvious from the high standard of games within the site that much effort has been put into their development. In fact Edheads has won countless educational technology awards, such as the Golden Web award and Nem5 awards.
Support for teachers
The Teacher Resource Center has been created by Edheads for teachers looking to collaborate, support and interact with other Edheads users. On this platform, teachers can share resources, talk about STEM learning and get support for Edheads games. This is an excellent addition to the site as it gives teachers support from both the Edheads team and other educators which many other edtech technologies lack. Edheads is an impressive resource for STEM teachers and the games they provide are some of the best freely available online.