Department of Education Funds and Supports Educational Games

Dr. Edward Metz leads education technology programs at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Metz specializes in working with industry leaders in the development of education technology, research to test implementation in schools and the promise of games to support learning, and on business models for private sector commercialization.

Dr. Edward Metz
Dr. Edward Metz

Metz’s work through the ED/IES SBIR has included leading the annual ED Games Expo and multi-agency stakeholder initiatives focusing on building capacity for games for learning in education. In recent years, ED/IES SBIR has been a leading funder in the games for learning space, making awards to industry leading game development firms such as Electric Funstuff, Brainquake, Spry Fox, Filament Games, Teachley, Schell Games, Kiko Labs, and Strange Loop Games.

Dr. Metz will be speaking at the Serious Play conference in Washington D.C. on July 10th to the 12th. GiN sat down with Metz to talk about games, serious play, and why the science of videogames can help educate while players are having fun.

Tell us about the IES funding opportunities for developers and researchers at the Serious Games Conference.

IES offers two programs with annual competitions that game developers and researchers might be interested in learning about.

One is the Small Business Innovation Research program, known as ED/IES SBIR, which makes awards for research, development, and evaluation of commercially viable technology products (including learning games) for education and special education. In the past year thousands of schools around the country and about two million students have used products out of ED/IES SBIR. The next program solicitation for 2019 awards will likely be released in late 2018 and proposals will be due 45 days later. To learn about the 2018 awards that the program recently announced, click here.  

IES also has annual competitions for research and research training grants. Many of these grant programs fund research, development, and evaluation projects to advance how existing or new forms of technology can be applied in education to improve academic achievement of students.  Game developers may focus on the Education Technology Topic or the Technology for Special Education Topic, although there are many other topics where applications could also fit. The 2019 Request for Applications are now available, and most competitions have a submission deadline of August 23, 2018.

For updates on these and all IES programs, follow us on Twitter @IESResearch.

In recent years the ED/IES SBIR program has made many awards for learning games. Why the investment in learning games?

That’s right, since 2010 ED/IES SBIR has served as a go-to program for many learning game developers, as about half of the awards each year have supported the research, development, and evaluation of games.

The increase in promising proposals and subsequent awards for learning games coincided with the emergence of new programming tools and mobile hand-held and tablet apps that enabled anywhere and anytime gameplay. Since then the program has continually funded projects where game developers have proposed new approaches to optimize how games can support student learning and classroom instruction.  For example, ED/IES SBIR projects have designed and tested out new game mechanics that motivate and actively engage students in challenging tasks where they need to master content and use critical thinking and problem solving skills to succeed.  Many projects have also developed games that scaffold learning by meeting individual students where they are at and providing clues and hints to support learning as needed. Many games also automatically assess student progress and provide data-driven feedback to teachers to inform instruction.

Can you provide some examples of learning games that have come out of ED/IES SBIR and the IES Research Grants programs? 

ED/IES SBIR supported learning games include: ECO is a “sandbox style” virtual environment where a classroom of students collaboratively build and then must sustain shared civilization; Reach For The Sun  is a puzzle-based game where students apply science thinking to learn about photosynthesis and plant biology; Up From The Dust  is an adventure game where students learn social studies content as they take on the role of wheat farmers during the Great Depression in Texas 1929;  DesCartes is a virtual maker environment for students to design and create the actual model using a 3D printer; Happy Atoms is a chemistry game with an app that scans physical molecular models that students create, and HoloLab Champions  immerses students in chemistry in a game show-based virtual reality (VR) environment.

Examples of IES Research Grant Program game-based projects include: Global ED  is a simulated role-playing intervention where students analyze a global issue representing different country’s interests and negotiate to find a solution; and EcoMuve is a 3D multi-user virtual pond or forest environment where students apply inquiry-based practices to understand causal patterns in ecological science.

Can you provide a point or two to guide developers who might be interested in applying to these IES programs for the first time to create a new learning game? 

One recommendation would be to make sure the project team includes an education researcher with expertise in the area of focus. If you are a developer and do not currently have in-house research expertise, look to partner with researchers or institutions with this background. Strong applications to all IES programs to develop technology must include plans for iterative studies to inform refinements throughout development, and propose a pilot study in schools and classrooms to test the promise of the technology to lead to the intended outcomes.

Another recommendation would be to include plans that will be used to disseminate and sustain the learning game after the project ends. Strong proposals to the ED/IES SBIR program include letters in support of the business plan, often from publishers, marketplace digital platforms, investors, associations or organizations in the specific area of the proposal, or from school administrators or practitioners who would purchase or use the product if it were available.  The letters provide reviewers an indication of whether the firm has the partners to bring the proposed technology to the market once it is completed.  The IES Research Grants Program also focuses on dissemination planning so that findings and products can reach the intended target audience.

Finally, tell us about the annual ED Games Expo.

The ED Games Expo is annual event to showcase learning games and technologies developed through programs at IES and across government programs. The free event provides attendees (including young people and students) a rich experience where they meet and interact with developers and researchers and try out more than 100 technologies that are designed to enrich the learning experience. The event also builds capacity for the field of education learning games by connecting developers to key stakeholders. To see a story on last year’s Expo at the Kennedy Center, click here. Keep an eye out here for information on the 6th Annual ED Games Expo, which will be held in Washington DC, likely in January 2019.

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One thought on “Department of Education Funds and Supports Educational Games”

  1. With the support and commitment of people like you, we will change the future of Education in this country, there is so much talk about what is not going right, so it is nice and exciting I to see all of this progress.

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