A screenshot from A Nation Divided, a video game--built by University of Virginia students--that reinforces Civil War curriculum for 5th grade students. Credit: Credit: Albemarle County Public Schools / The University of Virginia

Mia Shand wanted to jazz things up.

After teaching fifth-graders about Virginia’s history for almost two decades, the gifted-resource teacher at Albemarle County’s Agnor-Hurt Elementary School knew the 21st century was requiring her to breathe new life into the curriculum — but she wasn’t sure how.

“When you’re teaching Virginia Studies, it can be kind of difficult to keep the kids engaged, so I thought that there had to be something we could do, and I reached out to the University of Virginia,” Shand said.

As a result, Shand connected with Nicholas Lytle, an undergraduate computer science student and member of the university’s Student Game Developers Club, and Mark Floryan, a computer science professor. The duo helped build Shand a video game that reinforces Standards of Learning content related to the Civil War.

“The student’s avatar will walk around and talk to different characters in the game, so there’s a lot of reading and interaction, and every character is important to getting the skill they need in order to finish a level,” Shand said.

Designed over the course of 15 months, A Nation Divided began with Lytle and Floryan making a board game and testing it with students to collect feedback. From there came the first pilot of the video game that Lytle and Floryan built with the help of almost 20 members of the Student Game Developers Club.

“Now they just keep bringing me more strands of the game based on the curriculum,” Shand said.

“Turning a quiz into a game really excited a lot of the kids, and the byproduct of that is becoming more knowledgeable about the subject matter,” Lytle said.

Students receive classroom instruction about the Civil War, then take a short pre-test. Next, the students play a level of the game, which is followed by a short post-test.

And the game is working.

“It’s kind of scary because you’re kind
of losing control,” Shand said. “But you
can unleash the control in a safe way.

After playing one mission for 20 minutes, scores between the pre- and post-tests rose by 14 percent.

After one game session, the number of students who could identify key terms and facts — such as abolitionist or Missouri Compromise — jumped nearly 40 percent in some cases.

And the number of students who identified important historical figures — such as Clara Barton or Robert E. Lee — increased by 20 percent after only one game session.

Caroline Ding, a fifth-grader at Agnor-Hurt, said the game is helping students learn. Her favorite part of the game is the naval battle between the Merrimack and the Monitor.

“[On the pre-test] some people just guess the answers because they don’t really know, but as they get further in the game, they learn it,” Caroline said.

Ikhlas Khan, a sixth-grader at Burley Middle School who was involved in testing the game last year, said his class learned more than just history.

“Sometimes the game would freeze and I would have to wait, but in the end, after the game unfroze, I could get back to work, and the work was pretty rewarding,” Ikhlas said, noting that he liked watching the game’s development process.

Lytle said the biggest design challenge was finding the balance between fun and learning.

“It’s very difficult to make an entertainment-based game, but it’s harder still to make one based on academic content, because you get into the balancing act of not sacrificing game play for historical accuracy,” Lytle said.

Designing the digital content, however, isn’t the only challenge that increased technology in the classroom brings.

“It’s kind of scary because you’re kind of losing control,” Shand said. “But you can unleash the control in a safe way. That’s what I see happening. You’re always dealing with comfort and change, and that’s scary.”

But, Shand said, more control of their learning is something the children want.

“When you interview the kids … whether it’s elementary school, middle school or high school, a lot of what you hear is that all they are doing is listening, and that the teacher is delivering a lot of monologues and that there isn’t a lot of immediate feedback,” Shand said. “So while you can’t do a video game for everything, in a lot of scenarios, this would be such a great approach to learning.”

As classroom instruction continues to blend digital and traditional deliveries, Lytle looks forward to the role games like his can play.

“I’m excited about the future of using video games as a vehicle for non-entertainment purposes,” Lytle said. “I hope what we’re doing inspires more people to look into using video games to help get knowledge across.”

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