Photo Credit: Alison Hathaway / Clinton Global Initiative
Aug 11
August 11, 2014

Russell Shilling

Executive Director of STEM Initiatives, U.S. Department of Education

Play to Learn: Solving a Billion STEM Problems through Educational Gaming


This June, I joined leaders in video game development, education, industry, and government at the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative America Meeting in Colorado. It was the third year I’ve had the opportunity to attend the conference, and my first year attending in my new role as the Executive Director of STEM Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education. Participating in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education Working Group, our subgroup was committed to fostering the development of entertaining professional-quality educational videogames to engage diverse groups of students in the pursuit of lifelong learning and STEM careers. I came away energized by the group’s enthusiasm and the shared support for developing exciting new games that are both fun and help kids learn.

Our STEM videogame subgroup proposed a two-fold commitment idea. First, we’re aiming to foster the development of high-quality, high-engagement educational videogames that adapt to the student and are able to evaluate learning. Second, we want to support games that engage students on a national level to solve a billion STEM problems using these games.

The team was comprised of a wide variety of public and private participants, including game-development experts from Rovio (the creator of Angry Birds), BrainPOP, GlassLab, and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). We recognized that many promising educational games end up stranded in the so-called “Valley of Death,” where games reach the prototype or proof-of-concept phase, but fail to transition to learning environments due to a lack of funds or expertise to produce and market a professional quality final product. Thus, many promising games never reach the student or the classroom.

Image Credit: Rovio Entertainment Ltd.

To cross this “valley” and develop games that engage large numbers of students, the group proposed a competition to select highly promising game prototypes across math, science, and computer programming. The subgroup would then help pair the selected prototypes with private funding, consulting with industry professionals, and potentially strategic partnerships to support the game’s final development. Public and private groups would sponsor awards for specific themes and types of games that are relevant to them. The selected game prototypes might be developed privately or may have already been successfully used in research studies. Once the winning games achieve professional quality, as adjudicated by a panel of experts, they could be used in national classroom competitions to engage students in various STEM topics and reach the goal of solving one billion STEM problems.

We’ve already seen exciting early proof of concept for the classroom competition model both here in the United States and abroad. In 2013 and 2014, the popular algebra game, DragonBox, was adapted by researchers at the University of Washington and used in algebra challenges in Washington, Minnesota, and across Norway. Watch the video below to see the game in action. The competition engaged over 40,000 students in Norway and 10,000 students in the United States, and demonstrated that basic algebra concepts (representing roughly a month’s worth of 7th grade algebra) could be taught to K-12 students in approximately 1.5 hours.

DragonBox Demo Video

Video Credit: DragonBox

Zoran Popovic, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, explained that “one of the biggest outcomes from the Washington State Algebra Challenge was the fact that mastery of linear equation-solving was reached in 1.5 hours, not just by higher grade levels, but even in elementary school. More importantly, this mastery was achieved by practically the entire classroom, as opposed to just a few students.”  This is just one of many examples where entertaining and educational games can have a real impact on students and engage them in meaningful learning. I’m looking forward to continuing to support exciting games as the Working Group builds on this commitment idea.
In June of 2014, President Clinton, Secretary Clinton, and Chelsea Clinton hosted the fourth meeting of CGI America, an annual event focused on finding solutions that promote economic recovery in the United States. For more information, visit