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Supporting Overwhelmed Teachers with Self-Directed Content for Cellular Biology to Learn Critial Knowlege About the Pandemic

A Simulation of the Immune System and Virology Designed as a Game

Photo of Robert Clegg
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Written by

I am a.....

  • Educational Game Developer

Tell us about your idea

Teachers are overwhelmed with logistics and remote technology. By creating content in the form of a game-based solution, students become self-directed learners. Teachers can then ask critical questions about the immune system to assess what the students have learned.

What part(s) of the pre-COVID school system do you wish to leave in the past? Why?

The Covid virus didn't exist before this pandemic; that means it was fiction, science fiction actually. There's a strong push back against curriculum that includes fiction. So how do you inspire and teach students to think outside the box so they can innovate and find cures in the future? We need to leave behind the biases towards "fact only" teaching and embrace a platform that teaches innovation through creative experimentation - survival of the fittest in game-play!

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to share this idea.

I was brought in as the third-party game developer on a new curriculum project for biology, funded by the Gates Foundation. Prior to that, I had created a very successful action-adventure and multiplayer video game to teach algebra that had reached over 5 million students. During my work with schools, multiplayer jumped out as the most exciting thing kids loved to do. My team and I brought that design influence to the game.

I'm sharing this idea because the original grant only funded the prototype. I think there's huge potential to expand this into 20+ disease levels with a multiplayer to support collaborative teams.

What region are you located in?

  • North America

Where are you located?

I live in the Bay Area but my development team is virtual in places like Rhode Island and Ohio.
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Attachments (2)


Simple machines at nano-scale. Our future immune systems might also require an OS!


Nanotech designs are inspired by simple machines.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Naman Mandhan

Thank you for posting your idea to the challenge, Robert Clegg !
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on what role you envision school teachers and educators might play within this learning ecosystem? Additionally, what are some of your learnings that were gained during the development of this prototype that might help translate the game to other learning areas?

Photo of Robert Clegg

Hi Naman, thanks for the question. I envision a set of "levels" or challenges based around known diseases that form the introduction to the game. I'll be working with a curriculum team to dovetail the game objectives with curriculum found in schools. Second, it can be used as a fun activity to be played as multiplayer within the school classroom, easy to set up teams and play. For more adventurous teachers, putting together a team to play against other schools, like they do with robotics, is an option.

As for learnings discovered: First, the student mindset is completely transformed from textbook style fact absorbing, memorizing, test-taking, to one of exploration and problem-solving. The player has to explore and figure out how to beat the simulation. The player has to figure out what's going on, figure out strategies, and decide what approaches work best.

Second, the player does not have a preconceived notion about how the immune system works and what's "supposed" to win. Our playtesters actually found unconventional ways to win the scenario, ways that pushed the boundaries of "acceptable curriculum" if you know what I mean. But the same thing happens in chess. Beginners use ridiculous strategies to win, strategies that experts would scoff at.

As for translating into other areas: Once we give players the ability to mod the cells into hybrid objects, we'll be able to test the uniqueness, usefulness and/or efficacy of innovations relative to other hybrid cells across the platform. We'll use blockchain to track the history and use of unique cells. It will become a way to rate/rank a students ability to innovate within a system. Think of it as creating a new chess puzzle that allows a player to modify one or two of the pieces' movements to solve it. We can then see how those new pieces are used across the system in other challenges or environments.

This multiplayer framework will also work with something like robotics. Innovation adapted to dynamic environmental challenges. I've been working on The Virtual Robotics League to demonstrate this.

Let's not forget team roles. Once you have team-based play with multiple objectives in the environment, you get diversification of roles in the game. Team collaboration and leadership begin to emerge.

And let's not forget coding and AI as components of new cell features. How can a team of automata defeat a level? Or how can automata be used to create level challenges you must defeat!

Last, player rankings through competition is a way to judge a student's ability to problem-solve in new and complex situations. This is the future for Testing and Assessment. I call them DETA's: Dynamic Environments for Testing and Assessment.

Photo of Robert Clegg

A little more on ways to teach innovation using the platform: A player can design a cell to do particular things, enhanced in some way or another. That cell can be released into the ecosystem as a prototype. the student can then evaluate the performance and iterate. This cycle can be repeated as part of an innovation process. A key feature should be the use, testing, and feedback of new cells by other players so that feedback can be incorporated into the next iteration.

Many school projects around innovation don't have a rich ecosystem within which to test new features and functions while getting feedback from customers. Finally, one could then compare an innovation score against others innovating in the same space and receive an assessment for their performance.

Photo of Robert Clegg

More on other learning areas: The problem with many "edu-games" is that there is no space for a player to win outside the strict completion of the curriculum. The edu-game is designed with the curriculum in mind not the player. When you design the game to have win states outside the curriclum, you widen the audience to other students in the classroom with other gaming skills. These students aren't the "A" students, but they respond with excitement to use the skills they have developed in CoD or Fortnite. This does 2 things: It raises the level of excitement and competition because now the kids who are normally subdued in class are excited and feel at home in a game environment. Second, in the multiplayer environment, it creates collaboration between students of differing abilities as the need for both gamer/skill players and student/curriculum players are needed to ultimately win,

Therefore, educational games should be designed with win states outside the curriculum boundaries for maximum audience and educational impact.

Photo of Naman Mandhan

Some great thoughts here, Robert! What are your thoughts around how children might be coached through tests or levels, especially if there are certain levels that they get stuck on?

Photo of Robert Clegg

Hey Naman,
Say, I saw your background in mechanical engineering. One of the creative inspirations behind this game is the idea that the levels are Petri dishes where anything goes: Micro-gravity, rotational forces, UV light, electromagnetic fields, ... so I was wondering what you might come up with!

As for coaching kids through difficult levels: Keep in mind Fortnite, LoL, StarCraft, Overwatch, DOTA, and C.o.D are super hard. Young kids play these all the time and don't get anywhere near expert levels yet the game remains fun and interesting for them; in fact, they think they are great at the games!

So, having said that, there will be Twitch and Youtube channels with expert personalities playing through tough levels showing you how to do things. And of course tons of resources online. The real question is how much "help" will be inside the game. So many educators want instant help and immediate explanations in the form of some just in time help agent. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "experts" immediately request the canonical help button always accessible in some form of context-sensitive binky as if the child is raising his hand for help and can't be ignored. Well, that's just not how great games are built. The player has to really want to beat the level. A good dose of challenge (which some perceive as frustration) elevates the highly engaged and interested players from the casual players (who will eventually fall out of the ecosystem anyway). Besides, cheat guides and walkthroughs sell for $19.99 in glossy book form.

The mistake that is made is assuming all kids will equally enjoy and engage with the game. The uninformed appropriation of the concept of "FLOW" to edu-gaming is utter bunk. Thinking that you can adjust levels to be less difficult or remediate to a student's remedial needs is a joke. Edu-experts completely overlook the role of content in engagement. Kids still hate algebra regardless of how easy the little widget was to play to learn about negative numbers. I could make a game about trains super easy and context-appropriate but no one wants to play a game about trains. Farming Simulator is in its 19th version, but I wonder how many people know anyone who plays it.

What do you think the metrics are supposed to be for a successful game?
-- How many totally fanatical players will there be? And how do you measure that?
-- How many average to marginal players will there be and how important are they to the game?
-- How much turnover will there be in the game?
-- How much of the content will the average player complete?
-- How long will they play and participate in the ecosystem?

For comparison: First Lego League only reaches 300,000 students a year. They raise $30M in sponsorship and $30M in registration fees each year.