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How Gamification Is Revolutionizing Science Education

The following is a guest post by the cofounder of Labster, Michael Bodekaer.

When Jane McGonigal stepped on stage in 2010 to give her now famous TED talk, “Gaming Can Make A Better World,” the idea of using video games for anything other than entertainment was still a foreign concept to many.

Sure, there were games like Oregon Trail and Math Blaster that millennials grew up playing in school, but that’s where the application ended. As Joey Lee, a research assistant professor of Technology and Education at Teacher's College, Columbia University, said in an interview with The Atlantic, "Learning looks very different today, so we need to move away from the Industrial Revolution one-size-fits-all model that still plagues much of education."

With over 3.8 million views since McGonigal first gave her talk, “gamification” has become a cultural buzzword and gaming evangelists have made significant inroads in integrating games into school curriculums.

Institutions Are Jumping On The Gamification Bandwagon.

Advances in technology have also made it easier and cheaper to bring gaming into the classroom, especially in STEM, where student interest and engagement are at worrisome levels. A survey of more than a million American high school students found that almost 90 percent weren’t interested in a career or a college major involving STEM; a result that is supported by the fact that only 13 percent of US college freshman declare STEM majors.

The White House has recognized the lack of student interest in STEM, recently hosting a “Game Jam”, inviting more than 100 of the world’s best designers to get together to create educational games. Richard Culatta, the director of the White House’s Office of Educational Technology, challenged game makers to “make fun and learning indistinguishable.”

MIT has even created The Education Arcade, which partners with game designers, schools, and nonprofits to make educational video games and train teachers to implement them in their lessons. NASA is also funding STEM gaming to get more young people interested in STEM careers. Part of the reason for this increased buy-in is recent research showing just how effective gaming can be in bettering student engagement and learning outcomes in STEM.

Gamification Significantly Improves Learning Effectiveness.

In 2013, a landmark study by Gamelabs, which was funded with a significant investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in cooperation with the MacArthur Foundation, found that “when digital games were compared to other instruction conditions without digital games, there was a moderate to strong effect in favor of digital games in terms of broad cognitive competencies.”

In STEM, a major barrier for students getting “real world” learning opportunities like labs are high costs, lack of  time, and safety issues. Just last year a scientific study published in Nature compared gamified laboratory simulations with traditional teaching methods. Their results showed “a 76 percent increase in learning outcomes by using a gamified laboratory simulation compared to traditional teaching, and a 101 percent increase when used in combination.”

This finding is great news for teachers and students of STEM subjects alike. Games are now available to complement theory-heavy textbooks, making these fascinating subjects more fun  and interactive to teach and learn. For example, there’s CellCraft, which teaches cell functions while challenging students to create a supercell and save animals species in a hostile environment. There’s also ChemGameTutor, a game that asks students to rescue history’s twelve greatest chemists, which have been captured by a villain . And of course, there’s Labster, a virtual lab startup I co-founded that gives students the ability to complete high-level STEM labs involving real world scenarios.

All of these efforts are in service of changing students’ perceptions of STEM and giving them more entertaining and effective ways of learning these fascinating subjects. At Labster, we regularly hear from schools that they are challenged by the high costs of science education, and from students that they are bored of textbooks and lectures. By combining the latest technologies with gaming we can lower education costs for schools while giving students a fun way to engage with STEM curriculums.

I am fully convinced that global challenges like climate change, energy shortages, and diseases such as cancer and diabetes can be solved by this generation of  STEM students. By providing engaging new ways to learn, my team and I hope to  inspire them to create innovative solution for these challenges sooner rather than later. As James Paul Gee, a gamification expert and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, said in a recent interview, “If we do not deliver the game, but only the text, we do not get problem solvers and system thinkers, we get, at best, paper-and-pencil test passers.”

Michael Bodekaer is the co-founder and CTO of Labster, an edtech company that develops virtual science laboratory simulations for STEM teachers and students. He is also the founder of, a tech startup ecosystem that builds global technology businesses.

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