Video game aims to help students with disabilities explore careers in STEM

Most students don’t know what it’s really like to be a computer scientist. A researcher from the University of Kansas is hoping a video game will change that by offering students the opportunity to spend a virtual “day in the life” of a person with a career in science, technology, engineering, or math.

Teen Career Pathways, expected to be released in the first quarter of 2018, is a UDL-aligned video game that encourages students with disabilities to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and math field, said FETC presenter James Basham, a KU special education professor working with The Social Express Inc. to design the game.

“What does a computer scientist do all day? Most people think they sit around and code, but that’s not really all they do,” Basham said. The game let’s students build an avatar that explores the daily work of people in different careers, he said. Students also practice using executive functioning supports and work on building life skills.

“We want to provide students with disabilities, who have often been overlooked in STEM careers, the ability to go in and take on job skills and experiences that they weren’t afforded in the past,” Basham said.

Here’s more about how the game works specifically for students with disabilities. The game:

• Helps demystify STEM jobs. The idea is to let students explore the types of things they would be doing daily if they were working in a STEM career, Basham said. For instance, a student playing the game as a computer scientist would need to use mathematics to solve problems throughout the day. In the game, the student would use her math skills to solve work-related challenges. “The question for students is, ‘Would this be something you want to do on a day-to-day basis?'” Basham said. “We have some students who say, ‘This isn’t for me,’ and others who never thought about computer science before.”

In the game, students design their own avatars and choose from a variety of STEM careers. Possible jobs include nurse, doctor, computer scientist, lab technician, and building engineer. Each simulation was reviewed for authenticity by a group of people who work in those careers, Basham said. While at work in the game, students get to test products and socialize with virtual coworkers. At the end of the day, they meet their boss to debrief and discuss steps to improve for the next day.

• Addresses life skills. Students also get a chance to practice life skills before and after the virtual work day, Basham said. “Since we were designing this for students with disabilities, we knew that life skills are very important,” he said. The student makes decisions in the video game about when to wake up, how to get to work, and how to spend their money, he said. They also experience the repercussions of those decisions.

“They get to see, ‘OK, if I take the bus, will I be late for work? If I decide to pack my lunch, will I save enough money to buy a car later?'” he said.

• Models use of real-life supports. Students with disabilities may need supports to address executive functioning, time management, reading, or writing, Basham said. He and the other designers tried to include in the video game setting models of the types of supports that students or adults may have access to in the real world. For instance, in the video game, a student has a smartphone with the time, a calendar for appointments, and a to-do list. “We tried to think, ‘What would an adult or a kid have?'” he said. “Most would have their smartphone.”

There’s also an avatar that can pop up in the video game to support the student with reading, he said. “That’s something any student can get online through a browser,” Basham said. “We try to teach students how to use the supports that they would be able to use in their real life.”

• Provides UDL-aligned assessment with instruction. Previous research showed Basham that students with disabilities tend to struggle with transferring higher-level skills from a video game setting back to paper assessments. Assessments, not just instruction, need to be UDL-aligned so students can show their strengths, he said. Such assessments are built into the new video game. That’s important also to show adults what these students can do, Basham said.

“We hope that if adults can see students … with disabilities actively completing these simulations above what [they] can show on paper,” he said, “maybe that’ll open their eyes to thinking that this student is capable of careers that you didn’t think they were capable of before.”

Jennifer Herseim covers Section 504, education technology, and Common Core issues related to special education for LRP Publications.

Copyright 2017© LRP Publications, Special Ed Connection®