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NIU STEAM designed lesson plans for Webby Award-winning game

June 10, 2019

NIU STEAM recently designed lesson plans to accompany the educational video game “Breaking Boundaries in Science,” produced by the Madison, Wisconsin-based educational video game developer Filament Games. The game, a free virtual reality celebration of some of history’s most influential women scientists, recently won a prestigious Webby People’s Voice Award for “Best Game: Education.” “Breaking Boundaries” uses virtual reality (VR) technology to immerse players in the real-life work environments of Marie Curie, Jane Goodall and Grace Hopper. By interacting virtually with the scientists’ labs, players learn about their lives, discoveries and historical context.

A screenshot of the scientists from the Breaking Boundaries website.

Jennifer Javornik, vice president of sales for Filament Games, says that main feedback the company has received about the game and the accompanying lesson plans has been “Wow!” and “Thank you!”

“Virtual reality is still relatively new,” she says. “There is so little high-quality content that supports learning and even less VR content that is supported by the well-thought-out curriculum. For educators who have little experience teaching with VR, the curriculum provides concrete and practical direction on how ‘Breaking Boundaries’ can support a classroom educational experience.”

Kristin Brynteson, director of professional development for NIU STEAM and the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement, says the collaboration with Filament Games grew out of a meeting at last year’s International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Chicago. This connection led to NIU STEAM’s innovative lesson plans for “Breaking Boundaries,” a keynote presentation by Filament Games employees at the 2019 NIU STEAMing It Up educator conference, and an interview with several people from Filament on the NIU STEM Read Podcast.

Brynteson and her colleagues were excited to work with Filament, who they say sets a high standard for educational video games. “One of things I’ve seen in my research is that you tend to have a lot of educational games that offer educational content but are not fun to play,” Brynteson says. “On the other hand, you find games that are really fun to play but the educational aspect is not integral to the game. Filament does a great job of integrating the two. The artwork is amazing, as is the gameplay, and they have a wide variety of games that cover all content and grade levels.”

According to Brynteson, NIU STEAM designed the lesson plans with the goal of making the game accessible to classroom teachers who would like to incorporate it into their science, social studies or English/language arts classrooms.

“One of the challenges with virtual reality is that a teacher may have only one or two headsets in their classroom,” Brynteson says. “With one headset, that’s only one student, one set of eyes interacting with this visual content at a given time. So we designed the lessons in such a way that the teacher can leverage this experience, make it meaningful, and connect it back to other classroom standards and learning opportunities for all students. The idea is for students, when it’s not their turn to use the headset, to rotate among stations with a variety of other activities based on the game.”

Cheryl Callighan and Kerri Sosnowski

The development of the lesson plans was a collaboration between Brynteson; NIU STEM Read Director Gillian King Cargile; and content specialists Hannah Carmack, Cheryl Callighan and Kerri Sosnowski. Carmack compiled the supplemental reading list, while Callighan and Sosnowski did the hands-on curriculum development, creating three full lesson plans and a variety of mini lessons and idea sparks that can quickly be added to other lessons.

“Kerri and Cheryl are the brainpower behind a lot of our lesson development,” Brynteson says. “They both have a classroom background, and they make sure that what we develop is connected to state standards, is relevant to the classroom and is something teachers can easily implement. They do a great job of thinking of creative activities that fit the STEAM philosophy, fit the standards and will be engaging for students.”

The STEAM philosophy, in a nutshell, is an approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) that encourages creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and independent learning. Lessons are project- or problem-based, allowing students to learn by engaging with authentic learning experiences and real-world problems.

“We try to incorporate a lot of hands-on activities for students so they’re learning through the process,” says Sosnowski. “A lot of times they are building things or working on engineering activities, so they’re participating in what we call the design cycle. They’re going to be asking questions, planning, creating and evaluating, and based on their evaluation they’ll go back and improve what they created.”

Sosnowski and Callighan point out that they first learned about the Engineering Design Cycle from Brynteson, who began her career as an industrial engineer before transitioning into education. However, Sosnowski says, “We found that the design cycle actually applies to all the content areas, including the writing process, so we try to use that when we’re making all of our lesson plans.”

Callighan adds that, once she and Sosnowski become familiar with the video game, book or other content for which they’re writing lessons, they always turn next to the Illinois state standards for the intended grade level.

“When you develop a lesson plan, the state always likes you to start with the standard that you’re addressing, so you have to ask, ‘What are my students supposed to learn or know how to do?’ and then develop your lesson from there.”

Callighan continues, “With the STEAM lessons, we try to address at least three different subject areas. We might address science, math and art or science, English language arts and technology. And we try to incorporate that in a single lesson.”

When asked about their favorite “Breaking Boundaries” lesson, Sosnowski and Callighan immediately agree it’s the “Living Museum of Scientists.”

This lesson, which can be tailored to grades 6 through 12, asks students to research a famous scientist, immerse themselves in the scientist’s world, and use costumes and artifacts to dramatize the scientist and their work to various audiences.

“Basically, the students will investigate a famous scientist, and they will create a costume to become the scientist,” Sosnowski says. “They will know the background, the research the scientist did and what they’re famous for, and they’ll gather artifacts that would be significant to the scientist. Then somebody – ideally parents, school officials or students from other classrooms – will come in, and whatever artifact they pick up, the student will have some kind of a rehearsed story or some information to give.”

Like the game itself, this lesson focuses on recreating the scientists’ physical spaces and objects as a way to bring history and the scientific process alive for students.

“By being in these scientists’ places of work at a specific time in history, students can not only have an intellectual understanding of who they were, but they can feel what it was like to be there physically and also in that time in history,” Javornik says of the game. “By eliciting an emotional reaction in the player, students can better connect to these scientists’ lives and connect to the content at a deeper level.”

Brynteson says she couldn’t be happier with the lesson plans and the Webby Award that “Breaking Boundaries” has won. “We’re so pleased that what started out as a conversation at the ISTE conference has led to these connections with Filament. Our team as learned so much through this process, and we are excited to see what the future holds for VR in the classroom.” 

The curriculum is free and available on the “Breaking Boundaries” website