Campers

Sonia Jarral, at computer, cheers after getting the highest score of any of the campers, while testing the new video game, "Survival." Watching, from left, are fellow camper Makaria Martin, BreakAway producer Max Remington, counselor Judi Quawiyy, and camper Azura Ramsay (blocked by arm). (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / August 10, 2012)

Gaming is hot right now — even in the lab-coat world of science education.

The MdBio Foundation, a private charitable organization for promoting science learning and workforce development, is building an online video game for high school students. They plan to build a half-dozen games that can reach millions of students across the state and the country.

The group sees science-based video games as a way to help improve education in the STEM fields, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"The big troubling signs [in the United States] are a lack of proficiency and a lack of interest in STEM fields," said Jen Colvin, senior director of education and workforce programs at the foundation. "We can pick up any report and we're going to see the U.S. is lagging in science education. We consistently place in the middle of the pack. We need to bolster our STEM education."

The group partnered with BreakAway Ltd., a Hunt Valley video game maker, to start building Survival, the first installment of a multipart online video game known as MdBioSphere that will be available to Maryland high school students later next year.

In the game, students can create, nurture and guide fictional creatures living in a swampland, learning about heredity, genetics and genome manipulation. The game is intended to bolster and prepare students for in-class learning.

Across the country, video games are increasingly part of the solution that educators, school systems and technology companies are promoting to improve STEM education.

The Discovery Network's Science Channel features several online video games on its website for children.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is developing a STEM video game modeled after the online phenomenon World of Warcraft.

And several video games for middle, high school, and college students have resulted from the National STEM Video Game Challenge, a competition backed by the White House in which young people design science-based video games.

The nation's focus on STEM education was renewed three years ago when President Barack Obama set a goal to train 100,000 new STEM teachers over a decade, to raise the quality of U.S. education. The Department of Education is pumping $80 million into better teacher preparation. The long-term goal is to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science education around the globe.

From 1990 to 2009, 15-year-olds in the United States scored lower than the international average in mathematics, and about the same as the international average in science, according to the National Science Board. And bachelor's degrees in the sciences remained flat during that period in the United States, while such degrees in China more than tripled, according to the board.

For nearly a decade, the MdBio Foundation has promoted science education with the MdBioLab, a sophisticated laboratory built on a tractor-trailer that travels to schools around Maryland.

The mobile lab has reached about 100,000 students since 2003. But a science-based online video game has the potential to be used by many of the 46 million children who play video games, Colvin said.

J.J. Finkelstein, the chairman of the MdBio Foundation and CEO of Rockville-based RegeneRx Biopharmaceuticals Inc., said the foundation was trying to find a more affordable way to reach students across the state. The video game will feature minigames within the broader goal of the game. The game follows the state-mandated science curriculum, and is geared toward 10th-graders, who typically learn biology that year.

"We came up with the concept of an interactive serious game, so high school kids would have a venue with which they're familiar with and be able to immerse themselves in this whole area of bioscience," Finkelstein said.

Finkelstein said the goal is to develop the video game and sell licenses to education systems in other states. The licensing fees would help the foundation to continue to develop and support the game, he said.

Building Survival, the first of six games in the MdBiosphere series, will take $2.5 million, Finkelstein said, but the cost will drop with each subsequent game that is developed. The foundation is putting in $300,000 of its own money, Colvin said, and is looking for other ways to fund the development of the games, including sponsors, partners and possible government support.

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Survival video game



What: The first part of a multipart online video game known as MdBioSphere

Audience: Maryland high school students

Developers: MdBio Foundation and BreakAway Ltd.

Information: techcouncilmd.com/mdbio/mdbio_foundation/

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