Can Kids Love Math and Science More than Ice Cream?

As part of our broad efforts to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and inspire the world’s next innovators, Microsoft today launched a new product that opens young minds to STEM while providing students with a fun way to build a whole range of skills that will be useful regardless of their chosen career path.

Kodu Game Lab is a free PC application that enables kids as young as five to create new worlds and video games without any programming expertise. It builds real-world skills by encouraging kids to analyze a problem and develop a solution by using drag-and-drop icons to create a video game with landscapes, players and their own characteristics, actions and rules.

In addition to today’s launch of the Kodu Game Lab, we launched the U.S. Kodu Cup, a competition for students around the United States to submit their Kodu games. We’re also releasing a classroom kit for teachers to easily implement Kodu into their curricula. Hopefully, Kodu can play a role in helping children learn and encouraging more children to become future video game designers, engineers or scientists.

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion in the U.S. around the importance of igniting students’ interest in STEM.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. will have more than 2 million job openings in STEM-related fields by 2014, yet fewer than 15 percent of U.S. college undergraduates now pursue degrees in science or engineering. Of course, it’s not just about jobs. We need more STEM graduates to create the next innovations so important to the U.S.’ future economic competitiveness.

So, how do help children to see the excitement and possibilities that future STEM careers present? How do we help them develop the skills they’ll need?

Last year, we started a program called Kodu Camp to test an early version of Kodu with elementary and middle school children. We asked high school and middle school students to lead a group of about 20 elementary school kids, and we stood in the background and watched. The teen mentors started by asking the kids to think about and describe their idea for a game.

Once a child had a goal in mind, they described their idea while designing it on the computer. We knew the camp was a success when the mentors didn’t ask us for help, and the kids were so engaged in making games that the ice cream we had brought in as a special treat went uneaten and melted. This camp experience was repeated again and again as we brought Kodu to more children who have built games and worlds we never would have imagined.

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in the State of Victoria in Australia carried out a pilot in 25 classes across 20 schools, and they found that 100 percent of teachers believed that Kodu provided strategies that fostered inquiry and problem solving skills. The study concluded:

“The Kodu Pilot provided teachers with an opportunity to explore a very new Web 2.0 teaching and learning tool….the outcomes for lower achieving students in particular has been very positive and in many cases unexpected. Importantly, it has taken many of the teachers to a new level of thinking in regard to working with their students.”

Gabrielle Cayton-Hodges, a research fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, which specializes in advancing children’s learning in the digital age, blogged about the educational benefits of video games and video game designs. There, she notes that “learning how to create and edit such a system is learning critical analytic skills including systems thinking, problem solving, iterative design and digital media literacies.”

Of course, Kodu on its own won’t solve an issue as broad and complex as STEM education, but these experiences lead us to believe that Kodu is a useful tool, not only in engaging children in STEM at a young age, but in helping those children develop skills that will prove useful for their education and for the career they choose. For more information regarding STEM, read this public policy white paper.

You can download Kodu, and find a host of free training resources here. For more information on the U.S. Kodu Cup visit: http://www.koducup.us

About the Author

General Manager, FUSE Labs, Microsoft