Gamification as a tool to drive science education

Gamification has become a popular method of learning and productive behavior, driven by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. For many years, psychology researchers such as Edward Deci and Richard M Ryan have highlighted that self-determination is an essential trait for personal development and also a great stimulus of creativity. Since the dawn of virtual gaming and the commercialisation of computer games from the early 1970s to the current era of cloud gaming, scientists all over the world have observed what can be described as a psychosocial shift.

“gamification is a powerful tool for catalyzing attention, focus and investment.” – Brain J Arnold.

Gaming has become an intricate part of modern civilization and, according the 2016 report of Interactive Entertainment South Africa [IESA], the video gaming industry in South Africa has been growing year on year. In recent years many businesses, practitioners and, most importantly, educational institutions have gravitated to the unconventional yet excellence driven gamification model. Research suggests that gamification in relation to science education may play a vital role in:

  • Encouraging and/or supporting inquiry-based learning;
  • promoting the development of skills, attitudes, and values that are useful for scientific thinking or practice; and
  • skills transfer to the gamer, through simulation of scientific processes and argumentation, as in some games such skills may be embedded in specific challenges of the game.

Although some perceive gamification as an ineffective tool for teaching, it can be strategically utilised to support learning environments.

During the recent 2019 STEMI Olympiads and Competitions Community of Practice Conference, Professor Werner Olivier from the Gavin Mbeki Mathematics Development Centre of Nelson Mandela University, highlighted the fundamental aspects which have to be incorporated in STEM education including “incentivized gamification for constructivist self-directed learning”.  The increase in the use of smartphones and application-based resources are evolving support mechanisms for STEM education, where gamification interestingly has a positive impact. And in the context of STEMI Olympiads and Competitions, gamification (whether digital or manual) is an enabler to influence learners’ interest in science.

“games are cultural and educational tools for science education and games have unique strengths that can be used to augment science education.” – Gaming science: the “Gamification” of scientific thinking.

According to a study conducted by Kriek and Stols, published in the South African Journal of Education, technology is deemed as an essential tool which can be utilised to strengthen student learning and enhance pedagogy and also be used effectively as a cognitive tool for teaching and learning in the classroom. In a country which has a high-cost and low performance educational system the introduction technology as well as gamified based learning in the classroom can possibly revolutionise the learning environments to a low-cost STEM orientated landscape.  App-based learning platforms such as TouchTutor® are slowly influencing the learners’ performance through offline technology for day to day use, including preparing for Competitions and Olympiads, while in some cases manual gamification has played a vital role to aid the “learning in doing” approach which is employed by Lego games and competitions such as the Aqualibrium competition. It is through such examples that gamified-based-learning enhances cognitive problem solving skills.  

Motivation is critical to enable learning. Therefore it is important for our learning environments to encourage self-determination. Gamification is a good tool to enrich the learning experience and it is a good trigger of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  In conclusion, an alternative educational approach such as gamification has the potential to yield a positive result in science education in South Africa.