Fun: The Missing Ingredient

Online games make school relevant and engaging.

We have an epidemic of boredom in many of our traditional schools in America. According to the most recent High School Survey of Student Engagement, a full two-thirds of American youth report being bored in class. Yet, those same students who are tuning out in the classroom are turning on to video games and other forms of digital media outside of school. Based on data from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 46 million kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are gaming (along with 50 percent of their parents). Why are online games so popular? The short answer is they are fun and engaging.

So what if we could make school relevant, and excite kids to learn while building important skills in our future workforce? What if we could make learning science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fun? According to the National Science Foundation’s estimate, 80 percent of the jobs created in the next decade will require science and math skills.

For AMD and other technology companies, engineers are our lifeblood and the brains behind our technological innovations. And STEM is their oxygen. Because of that, the AMD Foundation launched an education initiative in 2008 called AMD Changing the Game. The global program is designed to excite kids to learn by enabling them to create their own video games on social issues, such as health and the environment. In the process, they learn problem solving, critical thinking, language skills, teamwork, and the all-important STEM skills. They also become more globally aware. Even better, they get so engaged in the game development process that they don’t realize they are learning. We call that “stealth learning.”

Since launching the initiative, we’ve reached 75,000 students in 6 countries, with more than 7,500 games created by students ages 12 to 18. We’ve experimented with a number of formats, including in-school classes, after school programs, summer camps, online portals, and competitions. It turns out that all of them can work, which makes the program highly flexible.

Another successful initiative is the National STEM Video Challenge, which launched last year in conjunction with President Obama’s Digital Promise Initiative. Sponsors of the Challenge include the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, E-Line Media, the Entertainment Software Association, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, and CPB-PBS Kids-Ready-to-Learn Initiative. This impressive group of forward-thinking organizations understands that game design and STEM learning is a winning combination. The Challenge received more than 3,700 game submissions representing a seven-fold increase in entries compared to last year. In many cases, teachers signed up entire classes to take the Challenge and integrated the game design effort into their coursework. I was fortunate enough to attend the awards ceremony at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where 28 middle- and high-school student winners from 11 states and the District of Columbia were celebrated for their accomplishments and creativity.

It was truly amazing to see the quality of games created by this new cadre of potential engineers and scientists who already know that STEM can be fun!

“We worked so hard on the game [submission for the National STEM Video Game Challenge],” said Julia Weingaertner, an eighth grader at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in New Jersey and one of the winners of the Challenge. “And then to see it actually working … it was really cool.”

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  • BY Daniel Bassill

    ON June 20, 2012 06:04 PM

    Tuesday at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in Chicago Alberto Carvalho, the Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools was a speaker. He has had tremendous success in raising graduation rates and test scores. His bio is at

    In his remarks he talk about changing principles and staff and gave shout-outs to Teach for America and CityYear for the energy and volunteer service they bring to his schools.

    As I listened to this I wondered why he was not giving a similar praise to the colleges and universities preparing teachers for our schools?

    I think if we’re going to make education more relevant to young people we need to be addressing how new teachers are being trained and where they get continuous training throughout their careers.  When the school of education is as highly regarded as Teach for America maybe we’ll find better ways to motivate kids.

    There are plenty of examples throughout the world of great teachers and schools engaging kids. These need to be collected and shared and used as teaching examples to prepare more of our teachers to be better at engaging kids. Forums like engaging educators outside of the formal system.

  • BY Lenore Ealy

    ON June 21, 2012 03:51 PM

    Ms. Peerman,  I am glad to see this story.  Has AMD Foundation ever pondered starting a school (charter or private) that would bring these resources to bear across the curriculum?  It seems that one missing route to education reform would be to engage companies across many different sectors in some competitive innovation at the level of the entire school program.  Otherwise, such engaging programs as this one become yet one more menu selection for teachers already fairly overwhelmed with complex standards requirements, and lots of “constituents” and vendors promoting their own solutions.

    And why merely social issues?  Why not games around great works of fiction and episodes in history and political campaigns?  Where core content has to be mastered to be able to design the game environment well. 

    My 12-year old plays the Assassin’s Creed series, and I let him, primarily because the game has motivated him to learn some Italian, inspired him to want to know more about Renaissance history (and now the American Revolution), and taught him to recognize on sight more famous classical buildings in Italy than I have ever known!  Not to mention that he now has familiarity with historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, the Borgias (yes, not the best crew to know!), etc.  Whether these games in particular get the history right, they motivate the student to learn more… and that is well over half the battle in education!


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Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why

By Paul Tough

Building on his previous work about the importance of personal traits such as perseverance in student success, Paul Tough focuses Helping Children Succeed on how educators, policymakers, and parents can help children develop those attributes.