Elementary schoolers learning through video game design

Apr 16, 2012

Benton Elementary School revised its curriculum this year to focus more on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics or STEM fields. One volunteer is picking apart a favorite pastime among his students, video games, to teach them about all these subjects.

Lucas and Kiren are video game designers based in Columbia. They are currently working on a video game called ‘Alphamon Apple’s Adventure’ which they think is going to turn a few heads.

“You start out as a heart who is a secret agent and you have to go through all these worlds and defeat a ton of angry guys. No, you’re an apple, not a heart. The evil guys are hearts,” Kiren said.

Oh, and Lucas and Kiren are in the Third and Fourth Grade. But these students are not the only ones excited about ‘Mummy’ the video game.

"So the hero in their game, I found out, is named Apple Man Alpha," said Jason Aubrey. He teaches Mathematics at the University of Missouri and, in his spare time, Video Game Design at Benton Elementary. "He's an apple. And the enemies are hearts, they are evil heart robots. That's totally crazy, right?"

Aubrey volunteers at Benton on Thursday afternoons running the video game club.

This afternoon, Aubrey is busy explaining to six children why the dragons they designed are not shooting fire from their mouths. He squeezes around knee-high tables, bending down to check on each student’s progress on their laptops. He explains the dragon is able to shoot fire at 360 degrees around itself. For some of the younger students in the club, this is the first time they’ve heard about the degrees of a circle.

For the students, it’s a balance between the math and science of videogames and the music and art behind the characters and the worlds they populate.

But the children are able to explain it better, beginning with a popular video game song.

"Angry Birds!" "Angry Birds!" "Angry Birds. Everyone has to know that!” yelled a group of students when the song played on a smart phone.

But for those who don’t, Angry Birds is a game where you launch birds into the air using a slingshot. The purpose of the game is to hit the pigs on the other end of the screen that have stolen your eggs. Kiren explains...

"You have to think about physics. And you can't have a game where all the birds magically levitate into the air and just stay there forever or something,” Kiren said.

They also have to design all of the characters in the game, which Aubrey says the children are most excited about.

"In math class, instead of writing down problems, it was pretty boring and we had already covered it. It was a review. So I took out my notebook and started drawing some of the enemies in our game. And I drew them realistically and not pixelated," Kiren said.

I asked Aubrey, wouldn’t this be a little bit complex for elementary school kids?

“I think they can handle it. They’re so excited about it, right? People who are super-enthusiastic, they’ll get it,” Aubrey said.

And that enthusiasm has been a benefit and a burden to Aubrey.

"The main challenge is that they're so eager and they just want to jump in immediately and create the next Super Mario Brothers. They want to create the next huge Triple-A game. We It’s dealing with that enthusiasm but not like killing it. And I hate to have to say, 'No! No! No! Let's take a step back,’” Aubrey said.

And students are already thinking about sequels. Here’s what was overheard in the classroom:

“You have to make them feel as if they’ve almost beaten the level. With one more try, they’ll beat it, and then they’ll keep on playing it and then they’ll love the game a ton and they’ll get all the sequels.”
“Wouldn’t they get frustrated with that? Like they can almost win but they can never win?”

Aubrey is still learning how to make video games himself, taking his lessons from a book called ‘The Game Maker’s Apprentice’.  He has no video game programming background except for a game he made in high school in which you can move a block around a blank screen. But last summer ,his son, Lucas, wanted to go to video game camp.

“We signed up too late and there was no space left, so we said let’s start our own video game camp so we got the software. And I think it was kind of valuable, he and I sitting around and learning it together. And it was an experience that I wanted to bring to the kids.” Aubrey said.

Aubrey was invited to be in part of the revisions to Benton’s curriculum, and he showed the games he had made with his son. Month later, he is trying to contain the excitement of nine elementary school children, which is something new for the Math Professor.

“I teach these lower-division math classes, and they are not always particularly enthusiastic about it. So having this constant level of intensity is exhausting!” Aubrey said.

And his son Lucas is actually glad they didn’t go for the video game camp after all.

“It’s really what got both of us into it. I don’t think both of us would have been this interested in starting this camp. I think it would have been just like, oh well! Okay,” Lucas Aubrey said.

Aubrey’s class is receiving new licenses which will allow them to build more complicated games with three dimensional worlds. He plans to continue volunteering at Benton and expanding the club next year.