Data Nerds Unite! How Teachers and Scientists Are Changing the Future of Teaching with Games

Lindy Biller
Mar 26, 2020 · 9 min read

We’re partnering with teachers from all across Wisconsin to design a teacher dashboard for our newest game, Lakeland. The dashboard will be available everywhere for teachers who want to see how their kids are doing, discover player patterns, and support students who need help.

Teacher fellows Nate Breitholtz and Peter Bertling at the fellowship event.

A few Thursdays ago, if you overheard the buzz of conversation at Field Day’s teacher fellowship, you might’ve been a little concerned.

“I don’t trust the guy with the hat.”

“How do I make them eat?”

“This is just a slow death right now.”

“There’s corn there! Why aren’t you eating it?”

And suddenly: “Oh nooooo!” to a chorus of groans and laughter.

Don’t worry, no teachers were harmed in the making of this fellowship! If you poked your head into the room, you would’ve seen teachers gathered around laptops, half of them focused on playing Field Day’s complex systems game, Lakeland, the other half taking notes and giving advice.

This activity was part of Field Day’s game data fellowship. The goal: to create a teaching dashboard for Lakeland! The dashboard will use data visualization tools to support teachers as they use Lakeland all across the country. When it’s done, the dashboard will be used in classrooms all across the country.

“We’re going to end up with a really unique experience,” said David Gagnon, director at Field Day. “This is not traditional PD, where there’s a message somebody wants to give you. It’s more like we have a problem that we’re going to work on together, and we’re going to end up with something totally new that’s hopefully going to make the world better.”

David Gagnon, Field Day director, welcoming the teacher fellows.

At Field Day, our mission is to design great learning games and use the game data to understand how people learn. AI and data visualization have amazing potential for helping teachers use games like never before. A game dashboard will allow teachers to help kids who are struggling, monitor their students’ progress on a single screen, jump in before kids get frustrated — the possibilities just keep growing.

So what will the Lakeland dashboard look like? How can we design it to support what teachers are already doing? That’s what the teacher fellows were there to help us figure out.

The Team

Usually, our fellowships focus on creating a new game. This time, we’re switching things up. Instead of a game, we’re working to create a tool for a game that already exists. That means we needed to bring in the most creative, fantastically nerdy teachers we could find.

Data nerds unite! The teacher fellows worked side-by-side with researcher Victor Zavala (upper right) and Ph.D student Philip Tominac (upper left).

For the fellowship kickoff, 12 Wisconsin teachers came out to UW-Madison for an overnight event. They worked with data scientists, researchers, and the Field Day team to generate ideas for the dashboard.

Kristyn Joyes, a teacher from DeForest Area High School, is excited about exploring new, innovative ways to teach with games. “I play a lot of video games,” she said. “I’m always looking for a way to bring games into the classroom. That’s one of the ways I connect with my students.”

Sedate Kohler, from Reedsburg Area High School, is inspired by the possibilities of using research and data to teach with games in the most thoughtful way possible. “I think that breaking out of the traditional education process is going to be how we keep kids learning and growing,” she said. “At its core, [learning] is about human connection and sharing. It can’t just be games, but we can use a well-designed game to promote deeper understanding.”

Jenn Scianna, Field Day researcher and former teacher, explained how the dashboard will transform the classroom experience. “As teachers, we don’t always have the luxury to sit down with one student,” she said. “And if we do, that means there’s another kid in the corner who’s off track. The potential of this dashboard is to be your eyes and help you know when to have those conversations.”

Day One: Learning, Game-Playing, and Lots of Soft Pretzels

Teachers Craig Corcoran and Joy Aragones taking turns to play and observe Lakeland.

Field Day fellowships are pop-up communities that create a space to make something totally new. That means the days can be packed pretty full, but they’re also incredibly productive and rewarding.

“I love this format of PD,” said David Fitzpatrick, from Reedsburg Area High School. “It’s intense, but the environment feels like family by the time you’re done.”

Day One began with talks and activities, carefully crafted to equip the teachers for design work. David Gagnon (Field Day Director) talked about why games are so important for learning. Then the teachers paired up to play Lakeland together and get a sense of what they need from the game dashboard. There was lots of laughing and yelling at screens. There was also lots of note-taking and advice-giving. I loved walking around and hearing the thoughtful conversations as the teachers got a chance to play and observe the game one-on-one.

Day One also included a talk by Victor Zavala, one of the brilliant minds behind Lakeland. Victor is a complex systems expert who studies, among other things, the impact of the dairy industry on the lakes.

Victor Zavala schooling us on complex systems.

For several of the teachers, Victor’s talk was one of the highlights of the event. “I loved hearing Victor speak about systems thinking and its application to projects in the classroom,” said Joy Aragones, a teacher and returning fellow from the Prairie School in Racine. “It was interesting to think about how things are related and the way we ask kids to think about things.”

Day One ended with dinner at the Great Dane in downtown Madison, where we sipped drinks and got to know each other. This social time gave teachers a chance to network, share resources, and compare stories from the trenches. (It also included delicious food and soft pretzels and pitchers of beer, because that’s how we roll.)

“I think the ability to have a long conversation with Eric and Jim at dinner was one of the most valuable parts,” said Craig Corcoran, an engineering teacher from Rockford Public Schools. He appreciated that the downtime allowed for more in-depth conversation.

David Gagnon (right) and Kurt Kiefer talking with the fellows at dinner.

At dinner, we were joined by Kurt Kiefer, the Assistant State Superintendent at the Wisconsin DPI and one of Field Day’s most passionate long-time supporters. The DPI has funded many of Field Day’s projects. They help make our work possible. During dinner, Kurt stood up and thanked the teachers for their important work on the front lines.

To close out the night, we walked a few blocks to I/O bar, a fun space full of retro arcade games. Some old-school gaming and a five-on-five Killer Queen battle gave everyone a chance to let off some steam before diving into a full day of design.

Day Two: Hands-on Design

On Day Two, we moved from learning and inspiration into design work. The teachers started with brainstorming and group discussion facilitated by the Field Day team. Then, without worrying about the details, the teachers jotted down their design ideas and transformed those ideas into sketches.

One of the key requirements: Don’t hold back. “Bad ideas are encouraged,” said Eric Lang, art director at Field Day.

Peter Bertling, a teacher fellow from New Glarus High School, is excited to bring this approach back to his classroom. “Brainstorming is tough to get students to buy into,” he said. “They get caught up in trying to evaluate their ideas.” Peter hopes that making space for “bad” ideas from the beginning will allow kids to feel comfortable throwing their ideas out there.

Day Two also included more time for practical learning. Michael Gleicher, UW professor and researcher, talked about data visualization, and Eric gave a presentation about human-centered design. Jim Mathews, Field Day’s fellowship director, led some awesome Q and A sessions.

Then it was time to dive in! Working on giant white sticky notes posted around the room, each teacher designed a complete mock-up of a game dashboard.

Jeff Paradis from Whitnall High School sharing his design.

The teachers’ blueprints are a perfect example of why co-designing with teachers is crucial. They came up with creative, practical ideas that can only come from experience.

Dominique Lark, a returning teacher from Madison who participated in our very first fellowship, suggested a replay option. “It would be a really powerful tool for kids to see how other students are playing the game, and to learn from students and their strategies,” Dom explained.

Sedate’s design included a similar replay option. She also added a leaderboard-type display — with players’ identities kept anonymous— to create a sense of community and to spark some extra motivation for students who enjoy competition.

The ideas kept coming. Joy’s design tracked how quickly students clicked through text boxes, so teachers could know if their kids were actually reading the instructions. Nate Breitholtz, from North Lakeland in Minocqua, included a “frustration meter” so that teachers could intervene before kids became discouraged. Several teachers agreed that an on-screen “help” button— like a call button on an airplane — would be an awesome tool for kids who got stuck.

David presenting at the game data luncheon!

Over lunch, the teachers attended a game data luncheon hosted in a beautiful space at the School of Education building. We enjoyed Mediterranean food from one of Madison’s favorite caterers and listened to 15-minute talks from university experts. The luncheon, which was open to the public, brought a large crowd, including Kurt Keifer and several researchers and grad students. During the event, the whole room took a moment to applaud the teachers and thank them for their work.

Then we returned to our home base, where the teachers presented their designs to the group. We ended up with twelve blueprints and tons of rich ideas.

Zachary Geiger (Greendale High School) explaining his design.

Next up: Testing, one, two, three!

The fellowship event is over, but the teachers still have an important role. During the production phase, the teachers will help with co-design through online chats. Then they’ll test the game dashboard in their classrooms.

“We’re trying to lean into the expertise that you all represent,” David told the teachers. “The thing we’re trying to do hasn’t been done, and we need you to help us figure out how to do it. We’re looking at you to be the experts in how front-line education goes down.”

The creativity and resilience of teachers has never been more apparent than it is now. As I’m writing this in spring 2020, an unprecedented number of schools have moved to at-home instruction to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19. That means teachers are innovating at an unprecedented rate to support students and families around the country. They’re designing, creating, and working hard for our kids — just like always.

The teacher fellows: innovators and world-changers.

“This was one of the most authentic professional development experiences that I have been involved in,” said Zach Geiger, from Greendale High School. “I feel like we were working toward a real product for students and hearing from relevant experts who were excited to be a part of this work. I was excited to be part of this work.”

The feeling is entirely mutual. Thank you to all of our teacher fellows for an amazing fellowship kickoff!

Want to learn more about Lakeland? Check out the game here: https://fielddaylab.org/play/lakeland/

field day lab

We design learning games at UW-Madison. Field Day Lab is both a game studio and a research lab. The University of Wisconsin — Madison is ground zero for research on Games and Learning.

Lindy Biller

Written by

Writer and storyteller with Field Day Lab

field day lab

We design learning games at UW-Madison. Field Day Lab is both a game studio and a research lab. The University of Wisconsin — Madison is ground zero for research on Games and Learning.

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