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Adventures in Learning

Master's candidate Jeff King creates educational games to capture the imaginations — and attention — of his students.

Jeff KingWhen it comes to engaging his students, Jeff King would go to the moon and back. Virtually, that is.

Confronted with the issue of distracted and uninterested students in his chemistry and Chinese-language classes, King needed to find a way to get them see the relevance in what they were learning. Finally, a year after he’d started teaching at Camden County Technical High School in Camden, New Jersey, it came to him: videogames.

“I remember being addicted to videogames because they presented a virtual environment that was so compelling and immersive that every action I took had immediate and relevant consequences,” King says. “Often these games told incredible stories that empowered me to feel like I could overcome any challenge no matter how complex. This empowering feeling was something I wanted my students to experience while learning chemistry and Chinese.”

King began to enhance the existing curriculum by using game elements. He turned his chemistry class into a yearlong space mission where students solved complex chemical problems in order to save humanity from galactic doom, creating an experience in which the students were not only mastering the concepts, but were also, King says, developing a culture of respect and teamwork.  

Although he has taught himself some programming and other technological skills to make his immersive lessons a reality, King knew that he still had a lot to learn. That’s where the Ed School’s Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) Program came in.

“I applied to TIE because I felt it could provide me the opportunity to build the skills and knowledge needed to improve on creating such a classroom experience,” he says. “I knew I wanted to try creating an educational game, even if it was very limited in its scope, and to really understand the challenges in making something that was simultaneously engaging and educational.”

King has been steadily working toward that goal since he first stepped foot on Appian Way. Expanding upon a lesson he taught in his Chinese-language class using a detective story as backdrop, King has developed EduSaga, a web-based educational game in which student players embark upon adventures, picking up and being quizzed on Mandarin vocabulary along the way. King’s clear enthusiasm for the project made it easy for him to attract partners in the endeavor.

“Jeff told me about his idea for EduSaga during one of the first conversations we ever had,” says Katie MacDonald, also a master’s candidate in TIE and technical lead on EduSaga. “He knew I had a coding background, so he asked if I would be interested in helping him bring the idea to life. He was (and still is) so enthusiastic about EduSaga that I decided to join the team. … He has so much passion for this project, it's unbelievable.” 

Emboldened by the Ed School’s emphasis on educational entrepreneurship and their confidence in their idea, King and the EduSaga team — which along with MacDonald includes TIE student SooJung Roh, who serves as product manager, and art director Mel Curtin — entered HIVE’s Education Innovation Pitch Competition and the MassDigi Game Challenge, placing second in both. King is pleased with the result, but found the process far more valuable.

“As I reflect back on the whole entrepreneurial process, I think being willing to share our idea before having an actual product was critical to pushing our idea forward,” King says. “Prior to the Education Innovation Pitch Competition, there were so many areas, such as the target audience, business model, and even the product itself, which we were struggling to define. Entering the pitch competition forced us to seriously discuss these areas, which pushed the venture forward.”

King’s hope is that EduSaga becomes the number-one tool for Mandarin learners on the market and opens the door for him to develop more teaching games and software. He plans to take at least another year after graduation to continue building his skills and exploring emerging technologies, but that doesn’t mean that he is done with teaching. In fact, he’s looking forward to getting back to it someday.

“When I do return to the classroom, I know that I can apply much of what I have learned at HGSE to improve my own teaching practice,” he says, noting that he will incorporate new technologies — if they can offer something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. “I feel more prepared to design meaningful projects and problem-based learning to support student learning.”

King is already thinking about new worlds his future students will explore, perhaps even a return to space.

“I can already foresee a classroom in which I apply my TIE experience to design a virtual and physical environment where students’ learning of chemistry affects the fate of inhabitants in an alternate and futuristic world,” he says. “I think my dream classroom would look more like a spaceship than a classroom.”

To play a demo of EduSaga, visit edusaga.com/demo.