AnnMaria De Mars is president and co-founder of 7 Generation Games and an adjunct professor in the Department of Applied Engineering at National University. AnnMaria has developed proprietary software for bilingual games in Spanish and English. She is currently in Santiago, Chile developing educational software for the Latin American market, as her company was one of 78 selected from around the world to participate in Startup Chile. She has taught mathematics at all levels from middle school through doctoral students. She received her PhD from the University of California, Riverside, her MBA from the University of Minnesota, and her BS/BA from Washington University in St. Louis.

How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work at 7 Generation Games?

My career and professional experience have both been a combination of math, education, and business. I didn’t plan it that way, but that turns out to be a perfect combination for running an educational game company.

Most games don’t work because they are made by people who know a lot about education but not making games, or by people who know a lot about making games but not education. For nearly my entire life I have been either teaching math or using math as an engineer or statistician. That’s given me a view of what students need as an endpoint to be successful and also a good idea of the building blocks they need to get there. Math is a hierarchy. You need to know what a denominator is to understand reducing fractions to lowest terms. Everyone knows that, but people who don’t teach math probably haven’t broken down the steps nearly as much as they should. Students struggle when they are asked to find the lowest common factor of two numbers before they’ve been told what a factor is. Software developers do a lot of hand-waving, "Oh, everybody knows that!" But not everybody does.

I watch hundreds of students a year play our games and analyze data from thousands more. This lets me see where kids are having difficulty and where I need to add more learning activities.

I’m also continually monitoring changes in our gameplay, adding sound effects, bonus levels, or augmented storylines to see how that increases student persistence in the games. If they don’t play, they won’t learn.

One thing we know from successful games is that having players invested in the games will keep them playing. You want characters they can customize or develop. Get the player engrossed in the storyline. Teachers and administrators are sometimes a little nervous about the amount of time at the beginning of our games that is spent in the storyline or just playing, but they quickly realize that this is to get students hooked so that they won’t give up at the first math problem.

What has been the response from learners who have used the games developed by 7 Generation Games?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Students ask their teachers if they can stay in math class and keep playing the games instead of going to their next class. Kids in after-school programs ask if they can stay after the program is closing because they have almost beat a level. Most important to me is that it’s evident that kids who play regularly improve their math skills and knowledge.

We get a lot of requests from students for more: more levels, more activities within games, and more bonus games. Quite often, we get math problems students wrote. Many of those make it into our games. If I had the funding, we could put a couple of people to work full-time just implementing student suggestions. Recently, we’ve gotten a lot of suggestions on customizing the game characters and on integrating science. I love getting feedback from students because it shows they actually care about the games.

What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?

I see a huge potential for augmented reality. Right now we’re adding AR features to the next release of several games. I also see a lot more mobile technology, particularly with phones. Kids are practically surgically attached to their phones and it’s a resource that is underutilized in education.

Clearly, since we have a new line of bilingual games, I think that is important. It’s surprising to me that with all the talk about individualized instruction using technology, having a choice of language of instruction is not more common. But then I remember how much work it is and I’m not so surprised anymore!

In addition to your work at 7 Generation Games, what else are you working on?

Making and testing games takes up most of my waking hours. I do some consulting and currently, I’m working with the Spirit Lake Vocational Rehabilitation Project to create apps that will be used by their program clientele. Our hypothesis is that having an app similar to airline apps that remind you of your flight times, give you terminal information, etc., will increase the usage of vocational rehabilitation services. I also teach Advanced Quantitative Data Analysis in the engineering program at National University. Also, I’m writing this on a flight to Santiago where I will be part of Startup Chile, developing a bilingual math game designed for the Latin American market.

Who are the most interesting people you are following on Twitter?

Dan Scheinman is really interesting. He mostly tweets about investing and is the antithesis of the stereotype of the Silicon Valley bro.

Lilliana Monge and her husband co-founded Sabio, a coding boot camp that focuses on underrepresented populations in tech. She tweets a lot about Latinos, software development, and Latinos in tech.

Qiana Patterson organizes a lot of educational innovation events in the Los Angeles area and always has her finger on the pulse of whatever is new and interesting in edtech.

Image: Courtesy AnnMaria De Mars