The National STEM Video Game Challenge is a multi-year competition that aims to motivate interest in STEM learning among America’s youth by tapping into students’ natural passion for playing and making video games.

Gaming the STEM System The Joan Ganz Cooney Center's National STEM Video Game Challenge is in its third year and is currently preparing for the next Challenge in 2014. The contest, which started with only a few hundred submissions, has grown to many thousand, and uses video game creation as a means to engage middle and high school age participants with STEM subjects. Submissions must be created using a set list of approved languages and platforms, including, GameStar Mechanic and Scratch, and can be made by an individual or small team. Beyond deeper engagement with STEM subjects in school, the nationwide program hopes to "demystify" STEM careers often perceived as too "difficult" or "boring." As Sesame Workshop STEM Video Game Challenge Program Lead, Christa Avampato describes to New Learning Times, "There is a misconception among many students that STEM professionals spend their days in white coats toiling alone in underground laboratories. In reality, they spend their days actively engaged with their communities to solve complex challenges that have a global impact." Additionally, the program hopes to "teach systems-based learning, design competencies, and effective communication skills" and inspire and empower the many mentors and stakeholders involved in the project, including educators and nonprofits, to do the same. To support the Video Game Challenge the Cooney Center has created free online toolkits and sponsored nationwide workshops located at museums and libraries. The group hopes to extend support for participants to an even younger demographic in the future. Additionally, the Cooney Center wants to encourage more young women to participate and plans to provide further support to underserved urban and rural areas. Avampato notes that, "We're committed to defining and building tools to make the Challenge even more approachable for a wider set of students, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances."

Designing STEM-focused Solutions The Joan Ganz Cooney Center and partner E-Line Media hope that the Challenge will inspire American students to pursue and excel in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, thereby creating more innovation and potentially filling ever more technology-focused jobs. As Avampato explains, "Gaming is just one media tool that is fast becoming a resource for educators to teach complicated material in an engaging way. Coding and design skills are well on their way to becoming part of the basic skill set that students today will need as they become the professionals of tomorrow." Inspiration for the program came from President Obama’s Educate to Innovate Campaign and the Department of Education’s Digital Promise initiative, which both focus on generating youth interest and increasing proficiency in STEM subjects.

Beyond the classic STEM subjects, Avampato reports that engagement with the Challenge extends to the Humanities as well, "Art, storytelling, and technology can be paired with any core subject. We have examples of teachers using games to teach a wide variety of subjects from music to physics to economics." President Obama recently made the following plea to educational game designers, "I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create… educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up." Who better to create these "compelling" digital games than students in the target audience?

Exclusive NLT Interview with Sesame Workshop STEM Video Game Challenge Program Lead, Christa Avampato:

What are the main goals of the program?

The National STEM Video Game Challenge is focused on opening the eyes of youth to the academic and career opportunities in STEM-based fields. We also work hard to promote creative confidence in students and to help them view themselves as makers of media.

Why did Joan Ganz Cooney & Sesame create this Challenge?

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center and E-Line Media created this Challenge to use video games, an avenue already popular among students, to teach systems-based learning, design competencies, and effective communication skills.

Do you think that video game design will become a part of mainstream education in the near future?

Gaming is just one media tool that is fast becoming a resource for educators to teach complicated material in an engaging way. Coding and design skills are well on their way to becoming part of the basic skill set that students today will need as they become the professionals of tomorrow.

If so, in which core disciplines do you envision adopting video game design first? Is it applicable to many subject areas?

The beauty of video games is that they have so many facets. Art, storytelling, and technology can be paired with any core subject. We have examples of teachers using games to teach a wide variety of subjects from music to physics to economics.

What groups of learners do you hope will benefit most from the program?

True to Sesame's roots, we want to reach students who wouldn't otherwise have access to learn the principles of media making. This year, the Challenge hosted over 20 free workshops around the country at museums and libraries. We also created free online toolkits for students and their mentors who wanted to delve deeper into game design. Next year we hope to extend this outreach even further into both urban and rural areas, and to engage even younger students in the Challenge.

How might this program help to encourage excitement about STEM subjects?

There is a misconception among many students that STEM professionals spend their days in white coats toiling alone in underground laboratories. In reality, they spend their days actively engaged with their communities to solve complex challenges that have a global impact. We hope that the Challenge opens their eyes to their ability to influence the world.

How might this program engage young women in STEM?

Young women have a strong affinity for STEM fields while they receive their primary education. Once they get to college and enter the workforce, there is very little if any support available to them among STEM professionals. There is a shift happening right at this very moment that seeks to change that, to place the necessary supports in place so that more women develop and maintain STEM-based careers. There is so much opportunity in this space, and STEM fields offer everyone the chance to literally shape the future of our planet. Women must be a part of that conversation and one of the most powerful ways to do that is through a STEM career.

What have been the big "wins" from the last few challenges?

We are thrilled that we've been able to garner interest from such a wide range of people who care about STEM. We count educators, parents, journalists, industry professionals, policy makers, and nonprofit leaders among our biggest supporters. This Challenge has been a vehicle by which they can come together to explore new ways to engage with youth and support their ambitions.

The Challenge has grown exponentially over the last 3 years from a few hundred entries 3 years ago to over 5,000 registrations this year. We're filling an important niche in ed tech: making sure that the voices of our youth are part of the development conversation.

Plans for the next challenge?

We are currently in the strategic planning process for the 2014 Challenge. Specifically, we are exploring ways to engage youth in early elementary school and to bring more young women into the Challenge. We're committed to defining and building tools to make the Challenge even more approachable for a wider set of students, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances.

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