Bringing a little mystery, adventure and fun into the learning experience
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
A trained archaeologist and former middle school teacher, Suzi Wilczynski conceptualized from her own personal experiences something she knew kids everywhere would love. “Archaeology is a wonderful teaching tool for social studies,” says Suzi, whose dig experience includes nearly 10 years of projects in Greece and Israel. “It brings history to life while encouraging students to use skills from multiple disciplines such as math, science and language arts. Students responded well when I used archaeology in the classroom, but I quickly realized there are not a lot of options for teachers who are not also trained archaeologists.” So she set out to create entertaining, interactive games that can be played at school or at home to truly engage children in the experience of archaeology — “and to educate them about civilizations and cultures in an immersive way that goes beyond what they can experience from a textbook or film.” With her business partner Robert Sharer (back in 1993, he discovered the tomb of an ancient Mayan king in Honduras) Suzi is the founder and president of Dig-It! Games, is hot on to something big and hopes students everywhere will be on to it as well. She calls it Mayan Mysteries and here is what she’s discovered.
Victor: What is the objective of Mayan Mysteries?
Suzi: Mayan Mysteries is an exciting educational adventure that turns kids ages 11 and older into real archaeologists and takes them on an interactive journey through history to learn about the ancient Maya. Bridging the gap between fun and learning, Mayan Mysteries uses puzzles and problem-solving exercises to develop and enrich kids’ analytical thinking, creative thinking and independent learning skills as they embark upon a thrilling expedition with “Team Q” to catch a secretive thief. Puzzles about the Maya calendar, number system, and daily life assess reading comprehension, geographical knowledge, spatial reasoning and science and math skills. An in-game encyclopedia containing factual information about the Maya contributed by world-renowned Maya expert Robert J. Sharer encourages kids to explore topics ranging from the Maya governmental system to farming practices and Maya beliefs about time. Players visit excavation sites, identify and carve dates into the Maya calendar, use real archaeological tools such as trowels, picks, sifters and brushes to uncover authentic artifacts, find hidden objects, create maps, and use the Maya number system to buy and trade. Mayan Mysteries is a learning experience, but it’s also just plain fun!
The game is also ideal for interactive learning in the classroom, and its content aligns to the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies and Common Core Standards for Language Arts and Mathematics. The encyclopedia is available for browsing throughout the game, allowing players to explore a wealth of information at their own pace; game play requires players to test fact retention and knowledge in fun challenges. Mayan Mysteries provides teachers with a powerful Teacher Management System (TMS) to track students’ progress and performance within the game at both class and student level, and to follow individual and class progress and performance on standards-based assessments targeted for each grade-level.
Victor: Who is Mayan Mysteries tailored for? Who is it not for?
Suzi: Mayan Mysteries was created specifically for middle schoolers (grades 5-9), but anyone interested in playing engaging games geared toward adventure, culture, history, and mystery will enjoy Mayan Mysteries. The game is an in-depth, immersive historical experience for anyone ages 11 and older. Younger children will struggle with some of the puzzles. Additionally, Mayan Mysteries is a historically accurate depiction of the Maya culture; some topics such as warfare and sacrifices may not be appropriate for children younger than 11. There is no violence or graphic images in Mayan Mysteries, but some younger children may be disturbed by the concepts discussed.
For educators, Mayan Mysteries creates an interactive learning environment while delivering standards-aligned and extremely useful assessment tools. The game is available as a Classroom Edition that includes one-year licenses for a class of up to 30 students. Visit our Teacher’s Page for more information.
Victor: What makes Mayan Mysteries different than other games for kids?
Suzi: Unlike many games, Mayan Mysteries truly bridges the gap between fun and learning. Mayan Mysteries provides an immersive, long-term gaming experience that is both extremely educational and a whole lot of fun. The graphic quality of the game is exceptional, the game story is engaging and complex, and the characters are compelling. In addition, like all our products, Mayan Mysteries is authentic and historically accurate. The game includes a vast amount of detailed, factual information contributed by a world-renowned Maya expert in a fun, engaging way. An in-game encyclopedia includes more than 300 entries on Maya culture, history, society and geography with topics such as language, number systems, ideas of beauty, climate, clothing and much more. The encyclopedia is available for browsing throughout the game, allowing players to explore a wealth of information at their own pace. Plus, Mayan Mysteries’ game content aligns to the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies and Common Core Standards for Language Arts and Mathematics. But what truly sets Mayan Mysteries apart is that players’ educational progress is measurable: a powerful Teacher Management System (TMS) allows educators to track students’ progress and performance within the game at both class and student level, and to follow individual and class progress and performance on standards-based assessments targeted for each grade-level.
Mayan Mysteries provides the right mix of entertainment and education in a game that can be played on Mac, PC and tablet devices. We’re also happy to announce Mayan Mysteries is now available as an iPad app so it can be downloaded and played anytime, anywhere!
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of technology in education?
Suzi: I believe that smartphones and tablets can be remarkable teaching tools, and I think they should be integrated into the classroom whenever possible. Some teachers, schools and districts are in full agreement: tablets are increasingly present in classrooms and the “bring your own technology” movement is spreading across the country. It seems that smartphones and tablets are on their way to becoming as ubiquitous in classrooms as computers. Unfortunately, not all schools have the same resources and the digital divide continues to expand. This is putting some of our students at a severe disadvantage, something I hope future education policy will address. Kids interact with this technology outside the classroom, and they need to be learning from it and about it in school as well.
Victor: What are your thoughts these days on the gamification of education?
Good teachers have always used games in the classroom. If technology can improve on age-old teaching methods, I believe we should embrace it. Games are a wonderful teaching tool, and interactive games have tremendous potential to enhance learning.
Computer games encourage persistence, value effort over rote performance, and reward success without punishing failure. The competitive nature of computer games encourages players to strive to improve performance, and gives them the opportunity to do so. Games provide instant feedback, allowing players to understand what they did wrong and learn from mistakes as well as successes. Good games require higher-level thinking and the ability to analyze and process large amounts of disparate information. Perhaps the most important part of gaming is its ability to encourage the integration of knowledge bases and skill sets: computer games require players to use skills and knowledge across disciplines.
There is no question in my mind that high quality games can add value to the learning experience. Unfortunately, there is still a surprising dearth of truly high quality educational games. In recent years there has been an upsurge in “edutainment:” products that are ostensibly educational but are actually mostly just entertaining. While I believe that there is plenty of room for fun in the classroom, I also feel strongly that educational games must have true educational value. Student progress must be measurable and content must meet national standards. Most importantly, games cannot replace traditional teaching. Good, high quality educational games used in conjunction with traditional methods can, however, make good teachers even better.
Victor: What experiences have informed your approach to games in education?
Suzi: As I mentioned earlier, good teachers use games in the classroom, and I was lucky enough to have and to learn from some truly excellent teachers who understood the value of combining fun and learning. In my own teaching experience, games were invaluable in engaging kids in content and reinforcing learning. But perhaps the biggest influence on my approach towards game design came inadvertently from my childhood experiences. My mother was a learning specialist who was a major early proponent of the concept that there are different ways of learning. At a fairly young age I was introduced to the distinction between visual and auditory learners; I became familiar with learning disabilities, test-taking and study skills strategies and much more. As I began to learn about good game design and to think about integrating computer games into lesson plans, I quickly realized that games have the potential to engage all types of learners. Armed with that understanding, I strive to make games that engage visual learners through the visual presentation of ideas, auditory learners through voice-overs and music, and kinesthetic learners through interactive exercises and engagement in the story. My goal is to make games with high quality educational content that are truly fun for everyone.
Victor: Got any quirky stories in or out of the office, or in your travels?
Suzi: Well, let’s see — does a squirrel in my home office count as quirky? A flying squirrel no less! I didn’t even know we had those in this area (Bethesda, Md.) until I came eye-to-eye with one sitting on a shelf! My poor little dog was frantic. That was an interesting evening. In case you ever find yourself in this situation: apparently the best thing to do is turn off all the inside lights, open a door or window and turn on a light outside. Believe it or not, the squirrel will scamper right out. I was amazed to see it just run out the door. Of course, it took it about an hour for the poor thing to recover from the fright of coming eye-to-eye with a person and being chased by a barking dog. But it was pretty wild to see it just scamper out the door and on its way. All my strange experiences seem to involve animals lately: a few weeks ago there was a deer in my yard that couldn’t get out. It was running in circles around the yard. I still don’t know how it got in. It was gone in the morning; perhaps it was rescued by a friend. Did I mention I live in the city?
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. Get your story told through case studies, white papers and other materials you can share at trade shows and on your website. Write to: [email protected]