RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Teachers trying to get students interested in molecular biology or space now have a new tool -- video games.
As more children grow up playing video games, educators are partnering with game developers and scientists to create new interactive experiences for the classroom.
A trio of new games were developed to make subjects like world culture, molecular biology and space exploration more accessible and fun for young minds.
According to a new "Kids and Gaming 2009" report from The NPD Group, among all children in the United States aged 2-17, 82 percent, or 55.7 million, are currently gamers.
Of these gamers, 9.7 million are aged 2-5, representing the smallest segment, while 12.4 million are aged 9-11, making up the largest segment.
Just as kids have embraced music videogames like Activision's "Guitar Hero 5" and MTV Games' "The Beatles: Rock Band" and sports games like Electronic Arts' "Madden NFL 10" and "FIFA 10," educators and researchers are hoping games like "Immune Attack," "Discover Babylon," and Virtual Heroes' "Astronaut: Moon, Mars & Beyond" will engage and educate youngsters.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) game developer Escape Hatch Entertainment created "Immune Attack" to plunge 7th through 12th graders into the microscopic world of immune system proteins and cells.
The goal of the game is to save a patient suffering from a bacterial infection. Along the way, players gain an understanding of cellular biology and molecular science.
"This is a first-person shooter in which the objects you need to activate with your ray gun are proteins on the interior surface of the veins," explained Melanie Ann Stegman, PhD, a program manager at FAS.
"This integration of molecular science with the game took a big collaboration between scientists at Brown and our game designer."
Stegman said data from kids who played the game show that they're picking up much more than just vocabulary.
Students are learning intuitively how the cellular world works, including complex concepts like the functions of Monocytes and the molecular interactions among human complement factors and bacterial surface proteins. A sequel is already in development for next year.
"As long as games are designed to be engaging, exciting and competitive I think they can be easily tailored toward educational purposes," said Tad Raudman, a science instructor at University Preparatory School in Redding, California, whose students played "Immune Attack."
"Approximately 10 percent of lifetime learning happens in the formal (K-12)educational setting. If games are played several hours a week on average, they can have a significant outcome on learning in both formal and informal settings."
The FAS also worked with UCLA's Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and the Walters Art Museum to create "Discover Babylon," a game aimed at 8 to 12 year-olds that teaches about the significance of Mesopotamia in world culture using library and museum objects.
"Quality videogames are very important in education because they reach some students who otherwise could not be taught," said Clara J. Heyder, physiology and pathology teacher at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
"Cideogames encompass visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning which are very important for learning."
On January 18, serious games developer ARA/Virtual Heroes will release a free downloadable prototype game called "MoonBase Alpha," which has been designed in conjunction with NASA engineers and astronauts to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to students across the United States.
The first-person perspective game thrusts players 30 years into the future and requires players to team up and use real match and scientific thinking to overcome challenges that astronauts might one day face.
"MoonBase Alpha" is a free predecessor to a new massively-multiplayer online game, "Astronaut: Moon, Mars & Beyond," which will be released later in 2010.
Jerry Heneghan, founder and CEO of ARA/Virtual Heroes, said the game will be an immersive platform, allowing multiple curriculum modules for teachers to incorporate the game into learning about science, technology, engineering and math for both the classroom and at home.
"Students can pick a role like a roboticist, science officer, commander, or space engineer and work as a team on missions to perform experiments, solve space problems, and save the colonies from a myriad of potentially catastrophic situations," he said.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith