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Danny Day

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Oct 8, 2008, 8:19:29 AM10/8/08
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Video Game Helps Math Students Vanquish an Archfiend: Algebra

Annie Tritt for The New York Times

Students at Intermediate School 30 in Brooklyn played a video game on
Monday, and learned a little algebra at the same time.

By WINNIE HU

Published: October 7, 2008

The eighth-grade math class at Intermediate School 30 in Bay Ridge,
Brooklyn, sounded like a video arcade on Monday morning as 30 students
zoomed through virtual tunnels and zapped competitors with a blue
freezing light.

Then all action stopped as an algebra problem popped on screen: What
is the slope-intercept formula for points A and B?

“You have to be at the top of your game,” said Salma Nakhlawi, 13, who
has been brushing up on her math skills along with her hand-eye
coordination so that she can play the video game Dimension M with her
friends. “I used to hate math, but I’ve started to like it. I actually
understand it more.”

This fall, New York City is rolling out Dimension M — M stands for
math — in 109 middle schools across the five boroughs after trying the
game out in two dozen schools, including I.S. 30, last year. Like a
modern twist on “Jeopardy!,” the fast-paced video game quizzes
students on prealgebra and algebra topics ranging from prime numbers
to fractions and complex equations. A correct answer brings 500 or
more points, a wrong one as few as 25; the player with the most points
wins. (No prizes, just glory.)

Whether such educational video games are effective teaching tools is
among the key questions behind the new Games for Learning Institute, a
$3 million research effort at New York University that was publicly
unveiled on Tuesday. The institute, a partnership between the
Microsoft Corporation and six universities (N.Y.U., Columbia, the City
University of New York, Dartmouth, Parsons the New School for Design,
and the Rochester Institute of Technology) will study games used in
middle school classrooms and then create prototypes for new ones.

The plan is to test the prototypes, focusing on math and science, in
more than a dozen schools in the New York area, and share the research
with game developers and others, but not sell them commercially.

“At the core, we are trying to understand what’s fun for kids in this
age group and relate that to what’s learning,” said Ken Perlin, a
computer science professor at N.Y.U. who will direct the new
institute, which will have 14 faculty members, drawn from the six
institutions, including Columbia’s Teachers’ College.

John Nordlinger, a senior research manager for Microsoft, said that
the company had previously backed efforts to promote computer science
among college students but that this project was its first effort to
try to improve math and science skills in middle school students. “It
turns out that this is a really hard problem,” he said.

In recent years, video games have been used to teach subjects
including math and history, with shoot’em-up style action as well as
simulations of historical settlements like Jamestown and modern-day
workplaces like a law firm or sports management office. Since 2006,
West Virginia has also been installing the fast-paced dance game Dance
Dance Revolution in its schools to promote physical education.

Dimension M, created by the New York company Tabula Digita, started in
13 middle schools, including four in New York City, in 2006 and has
since expanded to more than 300 middle and high schools in 10 states.
In Florida, for instance, the Broward County Public Schools began
using the game this fall in 24 middle schools.

Ntiedo Etuk, who is the chief executive of Tabula Digita and has
degrees in electrical engineering and business, said that he grew up
playing video games on Apple II computers and saw an opportunity to
engage a new generation of students with games that have a higher
educational purpose. Dimension M’s questions are drawn from standard
math concepts and curriculums used nationally, but the company has
also tailored the game to the specific curriculum in an individual
state or district.

The average cost of Dimension M is $10 to $20 per student per year,
depending on the number of students in a district, Mr. Etuk said. Next
year, the company plans to release a new video game focused on
science.

“We’re hearing from educators that their students are going in before
school and after school and playing on their own at home,” he said.
“We hear they can’t get them off the machines.”

Danielle DiMango-Maringo, principal of I.S. 30, said that Dimension M
was played at least once a week in math classes and more often by
students on their own at home. She added that the constant game-
playing has led to less “math phobia” and has helped raise test scores
on state math exams. Last year, 82 percent of I.S. 30 students passed
the state math test, compared with 78 percent the year before.

“The content is primary to us — we want the child to be well versed in
algebra — but secondary to them,” she said. “They do it because they
want to play the game.”

Ayman El Haddad, 13, who said he has been playing video games since he
was 8, said he was skeptical at first about Dimension M but now plays
it exclusively. He spends three hours a night, five days a week, on
the game, often enticing a few of his classmates to join him.

As Ayman has improved at the game, so has his math grade — rising to a
93 at the end of the last school year, from 85 in the first marking
period. He explained: “I started studying more because of the game.”
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