This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I strives to increase female and minority student interest in engineering and related fields. Reaching underrepresented populations in STEM is essential for developing the domestic workforce needed for 21st century engineering and STEM exploration and production. WisdomTools and Project Lead The Way (PLTW) propose to design, develop and test Race to Mars, a problem-based serious game to interest and engage high school females in aerospace engineering and STEM challenges related to flight and space. Deliverables include a framework of game design principles to attract underrepresented groups, a serious game module, and teacher and student guides. Our hypothesis is that by identifying new ways to design, develop, and implement engineering curriculum using serious games with game elements that engage underrepresented groups, we can increase interest, motivation, and learning outcomes in engineering for high school students (particularly for females and minority females.) Understanding if and how video games can support interest and motivation in STEM and if and how video games can support learning challenging engineering concepts will be important discoveries that can inform and advance our nation?s STEM goals. Usability and feasibility of Race to Mars will be tested with diverse high school students using pre-posttests, surveys, interviews, observations, and user data tracking. Data will be analyzed to assess impact on populations of interest.

The broader/commercial impact of this project will be the potential of this project lies in the use of serious games as an innovative way to build and retain student interest in STEM fields, both in the classroom and at home. Race to Mars uses compelling video game design principles that are designed to keep young people engaged and playing for hours and combines it with extensive research in gender and games, embedded scaffolds, collaborative learning, and visualization and simulation capabilities needed to support students in developing an interest in and learning complex engineering concepts. To help broaden and diversify the domestic pool of engineers, Race to Mars will be designed to attract females, including females of color, to engineering fields. Race to Mars will be distributed within PTLW?s network of 3500 schools in all 50 states as well as marketed to schools interested in supplementing other courses (science, career and technical education) with authentic learning challenges, and to families interested in exposing their children to the challenges and opportunities of the engineering world. Race to Mars will leverage our existing STEM serious games work with other national and regional partners such as NASA?s Office of Education and the Indiana Department of Education.

Project Report

Engaging underrepresented students with STEM curricula and resources is essential for developing the domestic skilled workforce needed to meet requirements for our country’s domestic workforce needed for 21st century engineering, engineering technology, and related STEM careers. Despite the progress of our society, women and minorities are still underrepresented in the STEM educational system as well as the STEM workforce (Burke, 2007; Osborne, 2003). The lack of gender, racial, and ethnic diversity in STEM fields poses a problem for our society in that we sacrifice ''the level of creativity, innovation and quality of STEM projects and services'' brought on by diversity (Burke, 2007, p. 7). Yet middle school is a time when many students, particularly women and minorities, tend to lose interest in science and math (Osborne, Simon, & Collins, 2003). If we do not provide high quality, accessible, and engagement STEM education, many of our students, particularly women and minorities, will likely not pursue STEM-related courses and majors, thus making the STEM workforce shortage and lack of diversity a reality that cannot be easily or quickly fixed. WisdomTools, in partnership with Project Lead The Way, Inc. (PLTW), has designed, prototyped, and, evaluated AeroEngineer: Race to Mars™ (herein called AeroEngineer). AeroEngineer is a suite of problem-centered, serious game modules, with a one-week curriculum unit and teacher support package, designed to interest and teach students key concepts in aerospace engineering, as well as integrated areas of STEM content and topics. Based on national academic standards, players learn and apply aerospace engineering concepts, as well as the engineering design process, to design, test, fly, and land a space vehicle sent to Mars. The AeroEngineer game and curriculum unit is designed to engage students to learn and apply concepts in aerospace engineering, as well as STEM content and topics. Learning objectives focus on learning and applying concepts such as mass ratio, thrust, and the Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation. Students use Delta V, mass ratio graph and impulse curve to evaluate potential performance. They use the engineering design process to design, test, evaluate and optimize their design based on durability, cost, and performance. To more effectively engage diverse populations of students in engineering, AeroEngineer uses specific video game design elements and overall approaches to help ensure an overall appeal to all students. These approaches and elements were based on research in science education (i.e., why middle school students, particularly women and minorities, tend to lose interest in science and math)(Osborne, Simon, & Collins, 2003), and research in serious game play (i.e., use and outcomes of different game play mechanics by females and males). The specific design elements used in AeroEngineer to engage diverse populations included the following: 1) use of diverse non-player characters, particularly represented in leadership and team positions; 2) choice of diverse types of game play missions, with an emphasis on altruistic goals and outcomes rather than using gadgets (Weisgram & Bigler, 2006); and 3) game play mechanics that value exploration over speed and competition (Heeter & Winn, 2008). Based on formative reviews with experts as well as a pilot test, the following outcomes were found: Formative evaluation with subject matter experts and curriculum reviewers indicated that the AeroEngineer game and curriculum package would potentially be successful with helping students learn about aerospace engineering and overall STEM, that it was academically appropriate, that it made effective use of inquiry based methods, and that it would engage diverse students in real life engineering experiences. A pilot test, with the majority of students from underrepresented populations, provided preliminary evidence that their use of AeroEngineer resulted in increased learning gains in aerospace and overall STEM content and concepts. Students' self reported level of interest and confidence in learning STEM was significantly higher after playing the game, with level of interest also being significant for females. Significant gains in interest were found for the following areas: engineering, aerospace engineering, careers related to aerospace engineering, and planetary science. This provides initial evidence that the use of AeroEngineer resulted in increasing student interest in STEM. Overall, students reported a high level of enjoyment of the AeroEngineer experience, which included the AeroEngineer game and curriculum with hands-on and written aerospace learning activities. In summary, based on reviews and pilot test of the game and curriculum with diverse learners, the initial evidence is that AeroEngineer can successfully be used to increase interest and learning outcomes in aerospace engineering, as well as overall STEM. Future work will include a full-scale evaluation of a refined prototype with students in both formal and informal learning environments. Additionally, specific design approaches used to engage underrepresented populations would benefit from further research in order to determine their effectiveness for engagement.

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Wisdomtools Enterprises Inc
United States
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