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Siege! A game-based learning unit for NGSS standards

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The benefits of game-based learning are becoming more widely appreciated and utilized by educators. Well-designed and skillfully implemented learning games provide students with fun, memorable and positive experiences in the classroom. Playful learning through digital games can increase student motivation to learn and engage with academic content and skills.

High-quality games create opportunities for authentic strategic thinking, problem-solving and meaningful collaboration. They deliver pacing that is tailored to student needs with instantaneous feedback, create safe places to fail and allow rapid iterations for learning through simulations that might be too resource-consuming or dangerous if executed in the real world.

As a science teacher, I team-teach a project-based science, technology, reading, engineering, art and math (STREAM) class to seventh-graders with art and technology teaching colleagues. To bring the benefits of educational games into our lessons, we recently developed and tested a game-based, interdisciplinary Siege! unit that teaches Next Generation Science Standards for engineering and physical science.

To begin the unit, each student completed a Google Forms content pretest. We then set up accounts for all 63 of our students to play Filament Games’ new engineering game, Backyard Engineers. The game facilitates a digital water balloon fight that teaches students about engineering tradeoffs and constraints, optimizing solutions for varying criteria and important aspects of catapult design and performance.

To track each student’s progress, we used the integrated teacher dashboard through seven sessions of in-class gameplay, integrated with reflective writing activities and interspersed with lab activity days. The lab days addressed topics such as criteria and constraints, structural design, forces, velocity and acceleration and work and energy. We also examined the accuracy, precision and statistics of central measure using hands-on games, data collection, data analysis and close readings. Many students extended their learning by playing the game outside of class during and after our in-class gameplay, which demonstrated an added benefit of using game-based learning in teaching.

To apply the content learned while playing games and completing labs, we developed a culminating event where students design, build and test catapults, towers and heraldic banners. We designed a hands-on, turn-based game, similar to students’ Backyard Engineers experience, where student teams attempt to defend their territory and destroy opponents’ towers and banners. On their turn, a team may choose to make repairs, move a catapult or launch a chosen projectile from a catapult.

While completing these activities, students learn valuable collaboration, problem-solving and authentic critical-thinking skills. We witness students designing some catapults for accuracy and others for distance, damage potential or mobility as they discuss the tradeoffs between design features such as base size, arm length, energy source and transfer or projectile capacity. Students design towers within the given material constraints to withstand enemy fire by constructing heavy bases and rounded exposed surfaces to deflect incoming projectiles. Students also develop social and collaborative skills as they elect leaders to fill positions such as Production Manager, Materials Manager, Siege Commander, Assistant Siege Commander, Repair Technicians and Battle Recorders.

After the siege, students participate in reflective writings and a Kahoot review game before finally completing a Google Forms post-test to assess their learning. All of the Google Forms, handouts and rubrics we have developed can be accessed and copied from this shared folder. I encourage you to try out these games with your students, and see them problem solve, collaborate and develop a deeper understanding of concepts than they would with a traditional curriculum.

Digital learning games are a powerful tool to incorporate into any classroom. While labs and hands-on activities help solidify learning concepts, game-based learning brings an element of engagement that allows students to truly understand and encode concepts.

Michele L. Huppert is a National Board certified physics and earth science teacher at Spring Valley Middle-High School in Wisconsin and a National Geographic Society Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. She has participated in several NSF Research Experience for Teachers programs, most recently as a Teacher Fellow with Filament Games in Madison, WI.

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