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By Alan Watts

Alan Watts-finalClassrooms are changing. We can see it at all levels of education, from kindergarten through higher education. This past year, I visited a classroom of at-risk high school freshmen led by instructor David Conover that completely changed my perspective of what a classroom could be.

The room was full of large computer monitors, some students glued to the screens, others meeting in groups. As I looked around, I saw students navigating alien worlds, mixing soundtracks, designing F1 racecourses, and of course, killing zombies. At first I thought, “Wow, seems fun but what are they learning?” Then Conover called a group of 10 or so students, and they began to tell us how they worked in teams to actually create many of these games. The goal was to inform the player on healthy eating, environmental sustainability, and many other significant topics. More importantly, during the process of game design, they needed to research and learn about these topics as well. I made a subtle suggestion about perhaps designing a game to show how pharmaceuticals are used in our world today and how they help us fight disease. I then stepped back and proceeded to be amazed by the creative and insightful ideas that were being thrown around by the students. They were still talking about fighting an enemy in the game, but now we were using antibiotics to fight a rapidly evolving tuberculosis infection.

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It turns out Conover’s students aren’t the only ones using gaming and game design to educate and inform. Educators all over the world are turning to video games as an alternative to didactic teaching methods, particularly in cases where a student struggles with traditional teaching methods. Some games have even been used as a tool to introduce fundamental molecular chemistry concepts in a new way. Some of these build-your-own-world video game platforms (called Sandboxes) not only provide a teaching tool with the end product but can also be utilized to teach a concept during the game design process itself.

This is exactly what Conover set out to do with his class. With the assistance of several AAPS subject experts and support from the AAPS Foundation, his class endeavored to design a game where a player used vaccines and therapeutics to fight measles and tuberculosis. In the end, the design process served as a conduit where AAPS students and professionals could interact with high school students about the role and importance of pharmaceuticals their lives. In the process of designing a game, these students had to learn something about the biology, physiology, immunology, and pharmacology involved in treating these diseases. The hope is that with every iteration (semester) this game could become more accurate, engaging, and educational.

We must seek out new ways to engage a student and open them up to new worlds of science that might have been previously unknown to them. Stimulating them to ask questions is the ultimate goal: How does a chemotherapy actually target a tumor? What makes a bacterial infection evolve to become drug resistant, and how can we overcome it? Why are vaccinations important, and how do they effectively train our immune systems to recognize and attack viruses? Getting talented students thinking about these questions today is crucial if we want the best minds working on them tomorrow. Video games can play an important role in peaking initial curiosity in a variety of educational topics. With a little scientific guidance to steer in the right direction, it is amazing how creative and engaged these students will become. These days it seems there is more to gaming than just killing zombies.

Alan B. Watts, Ph.D. is research assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Drug Dynamics Institute. He has worked with AAPS’s SPOD committee in efforts to improve education and outreach to K–12 students.