Games backed by federal grants to be featured at education expo


Games are no longer considered a diversion from learning.

More than 40 developers, many of which received federal grants to create educational games, have been tapped to showcase their products at the ED Games Expo on Wednesday night at the headquarters of 1776, a tech incubator in Washington, D.C.

They include recognizable names like Minecraft EDU and CodeSpark, which did not receive grants, as well as up-and-comers like Schell Games, Teachley and Zaption, which did.

The developers scored funding in the hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant program, which is run out of several agencies, including the Department of Education.

ED Games Expo provides a unique forum where attendees can actually play the
games and interact with the developers,” Edward Metz, program manager, wrote in an email. “It provides a great opportunity to
showcase how SBIR is helping to drive innovative approaches across different
fields as the games for learning movement grows, and to connect developers to
different stakeholders interested in games.”

The grants are typically given in chunks which range from $150,000 to nearly $1 million.

The Department of Education has made games – and other alternative ways of learning that are shown to engage kids – a higher priority in recent years, with an annual “Games for Learning” summit, a White House Education Game Jam, and the first student engagement and games specialist intern.

“Far too many learning materials are just plain boring,” Richard Culatta, who recently announced he is resigning as director of the Office of Educational Technology, said in an interview in February. “We believe that learning should be engaging and meaningful for students. Games have a lot to teach us about engaging learners.”

Jesse Schell, who started Schell Games 13 years ago, said he has redirected focus from pure entertainment games to educational games – the latter now accounts for about two-thirds of his business.

“We saw it was a really growing market given the way that tablets and mobile technology is moving into the classroom,” Schell, who also teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, said in an interview. “We saw it as a growth area, but didn’t see anyone there, so we started pursuing it.”

His team will be showing the company’s new game, called Happy Atoms, which includes models of atoms that snap together and a corresponding app that explains what the chemical compounds are. It will also have another virtual component, Schell said.

“For the game, we are developing this whole world made out of islands that represents different groups of molecules, and every time a player creates a new molecule, they uncover a new area in the island, and gradually, they’re uncovering the whole world,” he said.

This strategy of teaching chemistry, Schell added, is much more engaging than lecturing students about molecules.

“It lets players explore on their own and discover, which is something that isn’t normally there in chemistry,” he said.

Developers behind another company, Teachley, help schools use data that is being gleaned from apps and games to help teachers tailor their instruction.

They’re doing this through a math game they have created that works on iPads, said co-founder Kara Carpenter.

“Teachers can
create class lists in the app, and see progress-monitoring reports and intervention suggestions,” said Carpenter, who added that the game has had 800,000 downloads around the world. “We’re trying to go beyond the app, getting the data back in
the hands of teachers.”

Carpenter added that working with research experts in the federal government has been a positive experience.

“It’s doubtful that former teachers-turned-educational researchers would speak the same language as venture capitalists,” she said.

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Editor’s note: This story was corrected to reflect that Minecraft EDU and CodeSpark did not receive SBIR grants.