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KU professor developing video game with ed-tech company to prepare students with disabilities for STEM careers

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

LAWRENCE — At some point in every student’s life, he or she will be asked about career plans. At the same time, there is a growing national need to improve career readiness for young people, while recruiting talented individuals to careers in science, technology, math and engineering, known as the STEM fields.

A University of Kansas researcher is teaming up with an educational software development company to produce a new video game to prepare individuals with disabilities for transition to postsecondary education and STEM careers.

James Basham, associate professor of special education at KU, is teaming up with The Language Express Inc. to develop Teen Career Pathway, an interactive video game designed to interest young people in STEM careers while preparing them for life after school. The work is supported by a Phase II grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Research program. The grant is an extension of a Phase I grant The Language Express Inc. received to create digital content designed to help educate young adults about workforce opportunities.

“We are excited to start this project, it provides a great opportunity for supporting students with disabilities in investigating various STEM careers,” Basham said. “These funds provide another opportunity for us to develop a partnership and make an impactful contribution to families, schools and society.”

Teen Career Pathway uses the Universal Design for Learning framework to teach young people critical life, social and academic skills related to a STEM or facilities management career. Players can explore various careers, learn requirements of those careers and spend a virtual day in the life of an employee in a STEM career work environment.

It is personalized to each player and begins with that students’ avatar working through a day starting at home, completing tasks, making decisions, preparing for work and deciding how to get to work. Decisions are based on time taken to complete previous tasks. A virtual career mentor provides the player real time feedback and advice as he or she proceeds through the game. At the job site, the mentor describes that day’s tasks and events, which relate to the opening scenario. Using industry standard vocabulary, the mentor explains the tasks the student is expected to complete.

The game features tools to monitor student progress toward Individual Education Plan goals, which can be exported. An interactive learning environment motivates students to stay on task, and “sandbox” gameplay allows players to experiment with variables, while orientation tools remind students of their place in the game.

Teen Career Pathway is designed to enhance learning, reduce school costs and increase efficacy of students’ transition plans. It aligns with Common Core, National Engineering and National Council on Disability Standards and provides students, teachers and parents with individualized assessment information related to student performance. Each time a student plays, the game ends with detailed analysis of the student’s task completion in the game and suggestions for improvement.

“It is clear that engaging kids in video games is a great way to support learning. Working with Language Express on video games can support great opportunities to advance understanding of STEM careers for kids as well as help support meaningful contribution to understanding the dynamics of video game integration in schools,” Basham said.

Researchers at KU and Virtual Learning Environments Consulting are testing Teen Career Pathway with middle and high school students across the country as part of the Phase II grant. Both Basham and The Language Express Inc. have a history of developing games designed to improve student performance and support positive behavior interventions and social-emotional learning.

The Language Express Inc. is a San Diego-based ed-tech company dedicated to general and special education and the areas of character education.

“We are honored to receive this prestigious award from the National Science Foundation, and we are eager to introduce a new way for students to virtually explore potential career choices with more depth and interaction,” said Marc Zimmerman, founder and CEO of The Language Express Inc.

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