Connected Educator Month: Game-Based Learning

The topic of “game-based learning” is gaining considerable attention as more and more young people are learning from games outside of school and more and more teachers are leveraging the power of games to engage students in school.

Well-designed games can motivate students to actively engage in meaningful and challenging tasks, and through this process to learn content and sharpen critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Education gaming experts have identified some of the key features of games that may have the greatest potential to affect student learning, including:

    • exciting narratives and video-game quality graphics that motivate and engage students;
    • challenging discovery-based tasks;
    • adaptive supports that adjust to and support individual learners;
    • formative assessment; and
    • competition and rewards.

With the advent of modern web-based delivery mechanisms including smartphones and tablets, games are now available to young people anytime, anywhere.

The Department’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), recently announced a new round of awards through its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, including several awards that focus on the development of game-based learning education technology products. This year the program made 11 new Phase I awards (eight of which are for games) of up to $150,000 to support the development and research of commercially viable education technology products intended to support student outcomes in regular and special education settings.

In this first phase, awardees will develop prototypes of their products and conduct research on their feasibility. A second round of competitively funded awards will be made in 2013 for awardees to further develop these prototypes into marketable products and conduct additional research in schools. Awards for Phase II will be in amounts up to $900,000 for two years. For abstracts for all of the projects, please click here.

Even before the Phase I awards were announced in June, the IES SBIR program has invested in several projects that use games to support student learning. Below are details on three such projects.

(Note: The Department has provided the information and links in this blog post as a convenience to educators, parents and students. The Department does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, completeness or effectiveness of these resources. The inclusion of particular resources is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to endorse any views expressed or products or services.)


Screen shot from Sokikom

With awards in 2009 and 2010, IES SBIR funded the development of a Sokikom, a web-based set of math games for elementary school students. Results of a pilot study demonstrated that after one month of play by students in two 3rd grade classrooms, the technology worked as planned, and students were engaged when playing the game. Compared to a control group of two classrooms that followed regular instruction and didn’t play games, game play was associated with higher scores on end-of-unit math tests. Since the product launched in 2011, Sokikom has been used by schools and students in all 50 states. Sokikom has been recognized with several industry awards, including the 2012 CODIE Award from the Software & Information Industry Association for the best educational game,  the Distinguished Achievement Award from the 2011 Association of Educational Publishers, and the Winner of the Academic Gaming Solution from the Edtech Digest 2011 Cool Tool Award. For a video overview demonstration of Sokikom, please click here.

Game-enhanced Interactive Life Science (GILS)

A screenshot of the GILS game

With a 2010 award, IES SBIR is funding the Game-enhanced Interactive Life Science (GILS) suite, a set of five web-based life science games designed to facilitate conceptual understandings of the scientific inquiry process among middle school students, and especially among learners with disabilities. Research is currently underway to examine teachers’ best practices as they implement the games and to assess the promise of the games to improve student learning. GILS has received several prestigious technology awards. Most recently, the Software & Information Industry Association’s Ed-Tech Business Forum Innovation Incubator competition awarded GILS First Place: Most Innovative Education Technology Product. (Note: Another IES SBIR awardee won this award in 2011 for a dynamic program to support teaching and learning math). GILS took Grand Prize at the 2011 National STEM Video Game Challenge and Best in Show at the 2011 Games and Learning Society Conference. For a video overview demonstration of GILS, please click here.

Zoo U

A screenshot of the Zoo U game.

With awards in 2010 and 2011, IES SBIR is funding a web-based environment for elementary students to engage with pedagogical agents (animated life-like characters) to solve tailored, social-problem-solving tasks. Through game-like scenarios and interactions, Zoo U supports students’ practicing and improving in areas such as cooperation, communication, emotion regulation, empathy, impulse control, and initiation of play. The Zoo U product will provide self-paced learning for individualized instruction, student progress reports, and implementation supports for teachers. For a video overview demonstration of Zoo U, please click here.

The SBIR program holds one annual competition each year. IES will seek applications in late fall 2012. For information on the program, and for video demos of more than 20 products supported by this program, click here.

Edward Metz is the SBIR Program Manager at ED’s Institute of Education Sciences


  1. I too wish there were more educational games for high school students, most of the ones I have seen are games not related to the topic with a couple questions thrown in to advance to the next level or to earn bonus lives, etc.

  2. I just want to note that I am also extremely excited to see high quality games being designed with the goal of furthering understanding and engagement with regards to academic subjects. Thanks for sharing this, I’d be curious in knowing how these games are measured for their effectiveness at engaging and educating the students.

  3. Fantastic. I think by this way we can make learning much easier. Also student will get something new way which will be easier & friendly to them. Thanks for posting.

  4. It would be great to see some geography games that aren’t just “put the country in its proper spot on the map.” Those get very old, very fast. And some social studies-related games for middle school and above would be nice, too. Not just elementary kids like games.

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