Volume: 5, Issue: 4


Computer Games Development for STEM Instruction with Special Needs Students
Коптелов, Андрей [about] , Эдингтон, Вильям Д. [about] , Хайнз, Джеймс В. [about] , Эдмонсон, Стейси [about]

KEY WORDS: Special needs students, development of computer games, STEM instruction, motivation.
ABSTRACT: Student’s interests in and out of the classroom often revolve around technology and its many uses. This qualitative research study explored the feasibility of showing special needs students how to design and develop computer games that would then be used to instruct them in the core school subjects. Findings included learning that engaging students in developing content-based computer games enhanced motivation and interest in STEM and other core subjects. By working on the game development, students with learning disabilities enhanced and developed their communication skills, learned how to adapt to situations and developed improved social skills.

Today, more than ever before, students’ interests begin with technology and its use.  Whereas previously, students’ interests typically lay with outdoor activities, at the present time their preference is to play games in front of a computer, perhaps involving other students but oftentimes not.   According to literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2013), the total consumer spending on video games in 2012 was $20.77 billion.  It can be safely assumed that school-aged children accounted for much of this outlay.  (Compared to spending $10.8 billion on movies and $16.5 on music purchases).    Such is the affinity students have for computers and gaming that, “Young people consume almost 11 hours’ worth of media per day crammed into seven-and-half hours per day because of multitasking and yet students on average spend less than an hour per day on homework”  (Video Game Industry Statistics, 2013).

Yet, questions arise as to the efficacy of converting this natural interest on the part of students into conversion into a classroom STEM learning experience.   Research indicates that the use of computer games may be an effective bridge for learning.  A review of literature involving over 300 articles by Young, Slota, Cutter, Jalette, Mullin, Lai, Simeoni, . . . and Yukhymenko (2012) revealed that supporting evidence was found for the positive impact video games had in the learning of history, physical education, and language.  Other research indicates the effectiveness of video computer games on learning and motivation of the student (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013; Bittick & Chung, 2011), learning and motivation of the teacher (Adachi and Willoughby, 2013; Annetta, Frazier, Folta, Holmes, Lamb, & Cheng, 2013), student skills in problem solving (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013), and as an effective learning tool (Guillen-Nieto & Aleson-Carbonell, 2012).  Clearly, research suggests the power of video games to attract and hold the interest and attention of the student and teacher.   Not only does research suggest the potency of video computer games as an instructional tool for regular education classrooms, but for use as a stepping stone for instruction with special needs students as well  (Anderson, Anderson, & Cherup, 2009; Bolwes, 2006; Everhart, Alber-Morgan, & Park, 2011; Hausstatter and Connolley, 2012; Wilson, Brice, Carter, Fleming, Hay, Hicks, Picot . . . & Weaver, 2011).


The focus of this qualitative study was to find the best and most exciting way for special needs students to become engaged in research and exploration of the core school subjects during the process of video game design and developing.  The study used a purposive, convenience sample of two hundred middle school students in eighth grade and nine instructors of STEM subjects and technology, with 32% of students  identified as having special needs.  The middle school is situated in a large city in the southwestern United States.  Campus demographics reflect a population that is 95% economically disadvantaged, 94% Hispanic, 72% at-risk, 40-50% English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Language Learners (ELL) students, and 11.4% Special Needs students.  Special education students were mainstreamed in STEM classes in the participating school, allowing for participation in the study.  The educational objectives of the games were determined after the participating teachers ascertained where difficulty in STEM subjects arose using traditional teaching strategies for special needs students. These objectives required adjusting the presentation level of academic subjects, making them more understandable and interesting for the students without skipping the essential components of the basic concepts.   While having middle school students design computer games has become common (i.e., Herrig & Taranto, 2012), this project required students to design games addressing a specific STEM component.

This approach integrated several steps. The first was planning and developing an educational computer game focusing on a component of a STEM subject.  Many students completed this step in pairs or groups at their choosing, while others chose to work alone.  Those who worked in groups divided labor according to their perceived skill sets.  For example, within a group, one might draw, another might type, and the third might select the music.  The second step required creating (visual programming) the game.  Again, labor was often divided.  The third step was testing and playing the game to learn the basic concepts of the subject.  Students had the opportunity to demonstrate their game to others and then let their fellow students play it.  Students and teachers were then interviewed in an effort to determine their perceptions and the efficacy of the effectiveness of the project.   Special attention was paid to the responses by those identified as special needs students. 


We have learned that engaging students in developing content-based computer games enhances motivation and interest in STEM and other core subjects’ areas. The activities that were conducted developed their students’ thinking and enhanced interest in learning.  By using students’ willingness to play educational computer games and at the same time try to develop their own games, their curiosity was encouraged and they became motivated to learn and create through game development.  We have also learned that students can successfully plan, develop and create educational games and conduct necessary research to complete their educational computer game development projects even in the areas that related to the very modern fields such as bio and nanotechnologies.  The following are observations based on the class projects:

  1. At-risk students and students with learning disabilities displayed increased motivation and interest in learning.
  2. Practical activities on educational games design helped students to plan, organize, and complete STEM-related assignments that take increasing amounts of time—and often require exactly the skills they lack. Technology supported the development of compensatory skills to accomplish these tasks and, most importantly, engaged students in strengthening skills through regular and repeated use by creating a game, testing it, and working on the educational content selection and adjustment for the game.
  3. Students successfully planned, developed and created educational games and conducted necessary basic research to complete their computer game development projects. They asked for help and felt involved in the process of learning.
  4. By working on the game development, students with learning disabilities enhanced and developed their communication skills, learned how to adapt to situations and developed improved social skills.
  5. Working in pairs and groups with other classmates supported positive relationships by using peer teaching and cross age tutoring.
  6. The process of creating educational games provided a good opportunity for differentiation that is absolutely necessary for students with disabilities. Students who are good at drawing worked as illustrators and character designers. Students who are good at telling stories created a story line and provided ideas for the game. Some students who are not very good in writing created a graphic representation for their game objects and actions.
  7. Students with special needs often do not imagine themselves as working adults in the future. Activities on creating computer games helped them to see how their strengths can work for their future career.
  8. The activities that were conducted helped develop students’ logical and even critical thinking skills and enhanced their interest in learning.  Using students’ willingness to play educational games and develop their own games, they were encouraged and motivated to learn difficult objectives from the STEM subject areas.
  9. Struggling students and students with learning disabilities employed additional ways to get acquainted with basic and even advanced concepts in STEM subject areas as well as technology in an unintimidating way.
  10.  Students’ academic achievement was improved and enhanced by actively engaging the students in “hands-on” studies of important and relevant STEM topics.

Summary and Conclusion

This project suggests that modern STEM areas may be learned in meaningful ways by special needs students. The actual product was an educational computer game focused on introduction to bio and nanotechnology, and developed and tested by eighth grade students from a middle school in a large city in the southwestern part of the United States. Providing game designing assignments on a STEM topic helped students teach and learn the topic itself.  It also showed that students can create useful games for themselves as well as for other students, and an interest in STEM components can be generated using this type of assignment. The survey of more than 200 of special needs and regular education students involved suggest that this activity will have a positive impact.

Future research should involve:

  1. Selecting specific STEM content for educational games development, such as life sciences, geography, and geometry.
  2. Finding the most effective ways to integrate technology and STEM subjects.
  3. The preparation of teachers/instructors to facilitate their ability to organize and manage these activities.

It was observed that through designing and building video games for their own use and use by others, special needs students were able to capture concepts in STEM components that may have heretofore alluded to them.  This supports the findings of Harris and Smith (2004) which suggested the positive impact integrated technology may have with students with disabilities.   The findings suggest that mainstreaming coupled with appropriate use of technology can have a positive impact on both achievement and motivation of special needs students.


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