Gaming For Knowledge: SimCityEDU Teaches Kids All About City Planning

What's the best way to manage transportation demands? What challenges are associated with green energy? What's the most effective way to lay out a city's infrastructure? 

These are just a few of the questions addressed by SimCityEDU - a new educational platform designed by non-profit GlassLab with the help of Electronic Arts and Maxis. Currently, the game's being beta tested at the Lazear Charter Academy in Oakland, California, but once that's done, it's likely to see widespread use in classrooms all over the world. 

Built on the framework of SimCity, EDU puts players through a series of environmental science missions based on the Common Core State Standards. The game starts out fairly simple, but as the player progresses through the six different missions - each of which is linked to the others - they'll obtain new tools and address increasingly-complicated concepts, such as green energy and pollution. The missions are designed in such a way that they don't have to be completed in order; many educators are actually choosing to pick out which segments of the platform best fits their curriculum.

Seventh grade engineering teacher Petrut Ababei was one of those teachers, and chose to have his class dive straight into lesson six. His approach, he explained, was based on his faith in his students' ability to explore and figure things out on their own. "I think kids are pretty good at that," he said. 

"[The kids] were able to be very quick and responsive to the feedback they were getting in the game based on their actions," explained seventh grade engineering teacher Petrut Ababei. "That was pretty impressive and I get excited. I think those are the good moments in teaching, when you're like 'I didn't teach you that, but you figured it out on your own.'" 

Unfortunately, jumping to level six, called "It's Complicated," means that students miss out on the scaffolding; they don't gain the tools and knowledge necessary to complete the mission. The end result of this was that, though some students were able to puzzle things out themselves, others were left confused; many students had checked out entirely by the time the 30 minute class reached its end. 

"What this tells me as a developer is that I need to improve the visibility of the professional development and the lesson plans so you don't have to spend more than two minutes to figure out 'OK, here's what I want to focus on. I need a much easier view of quick scaffolding of what's in each mission," noted Glasslab's General Manager, Jessica Lindl.  

"Not only are we reaching [the students] about systems in a very fun way, but we're also teaching them about perseverance and that failure isn't necessarily a bad thing," added Francis Abbatantuono, a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math coach at Education for Change. "The point for me is they're trying something, they're seeing themselves fail, and they're going back and trying something different. And hopefully that transitions to the game, the class, and their life." 

SimCityEDU also includes a set of formative assessment tools which gauges the ability of the students to discover and understand the tools they're given, allowing GlassLab to analyze their problem-solving capabilities. Every action the player takes in-game is tracked and used to assess how well that student is applying critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 

"It's almost like learning the game is part of the experience," said Lindl.

Once the initial testing period's done with, GlassLab intends to make the game available to the public on November 7 through a number of established vendors. Teachers who decide to use the platform aren't locked into using the Common Core standard, either - they can easily add new standards of their own, if the need arises.