Teaching and the F word

New Zealand INTERFACE magazine |Michael Fenton| February 2009

What do 3D games, robotics, science and maths have in common? Students love them all when they're having `fun', writes Michael Fenton.

In my experience, the f-word can make a real difference to the way students view science and technology.

Of course the f-word in this case is 'fun'.

And it should always have a place in the classroom, both primary and secondary, even when teachers have many pressures to stick to the business of teaching.

I believe NCEA is having a negative impact on the number of senior science fair entries in my Taranaki region. It seems one of the basic tenets of science, to question and test ideas, has been ignored and replaced with rote learning for exams.

Is there a way to keep everyone happy?

One complaint of using ICT is that students sit in front of a screen, neither cognitively or physically active. But the capabilities of devices such as cellphones, laptops and my RIGEL sensor system mean we can reverse the trend of the past 10 years.

We can use them to connect with real space, getting students active in the real world both physically and cognitively.

Teaching is as much an art as a science. All students benefit most when both free-flowing creativity and disciplined thought are employed to complete tasks. But how can teachers meet these needs and assess learning outcomes and competencies? My approach is to use Game Maker (GM). Apart from the obvious focus on game play

and design, it's much more than that. For example, if a Year 9 student shows a gift for 3D animation but doesn't know what to do with it, GM can provide a focus and outlet for that talent. Why not get the student to create teaching and learning resources for the school?

Game design also provides an opportunity for authentic learning:

  • the student will have to learn at least something of the subject they are making the  resource about
  • the product made by the student could provide evidence for assessment purposes;
  • multi-tasking is catered for, such as creating graphics, sound clips, a design plan, etc; and
  • students can work collaboratively on a project and merge work. Multi-player and online chat technology is built in to GM.

It's amazing how quickly students become confident users of the software. I have taught those as young as seven to use it (there's a high level scripting language for advanced users, too). And no two solutions to a design brief are the same. GM can be used to create interactive whiteboard tools, robotic sensor systems, language and music tools, multimedia databases, and 3D simulators.

Science simulators don't have to be boring either. A game based on the 'Dr Who' TV show involves being inside a 3D TARDIS. Players can visit the Doctor's laboratory to learn about astronomy, go to the library, or, for a break, evade Daleks and Cybermen. It's all good fun and something that inspires students to look at the science in a new way.

Interactive TARDIS  - science simulator adn teachign tool by Michael Fenton

I'm not advocating Game Maker, or any particular technology, as the one ideal 'solution' to teaching 21st century learners.

Teaching is about change - changing teaching philosophies, changing students' attitudes, and dealing with changing technology. And no matter what technology is used, students and teachers need time to be creative and produce something worthwhile.

Taking time to go off the beaten path can be rewarding, inspiring ... and fun.


WHAT IS RIGEL? The Real-world Interactive Games and Electronics Link (RIGEL) is a multi-purpose sensor system invented by Michael Fenton. The pocket-sized unit consists of both hardware and software, and can be used to log data across a range of subjects.

The project was a finalist in the INTERFACE Awards 2008.

 A year 13 student uses the RIGEL system configured as a flight simulator...

Michael Fenton's full Ministry of Education E-learning report can be found here: 2008 eLearning research report:

"Authentic learning using mobile sensor technology with reflections on the state of science education in New Zealand "

Much of this work highlighted and anticipated many of the issues covered in "Looking ahead: science education for the twenty-first century"  recently released from the office of the Prime Minister's Science Advisory Committee.

See also this article about his presentation at the Microsoft Partners in Learning Regional Innovative Teachers conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia...

eLearning eFellow report cover


New Zealand INTERFACE magazine | February 2009

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