There are so many wonderful ways to explore the science of the world around us from robotics, to hands-on exploration to the intersection of science and pop culture. And these are crucial given the ever increasing necessity of technology in our world coupled with the simultaneous and antithetical growth of science denialism. That’s why in addition to addressing science denial we need to also initiate 21st-century teaching practices. One of the most engaging ways to do that is through games. And while some board games like Pandemic or Virulence are downright infectious, I want to focus on those digital one where you don’t have to worry about losing pieces. I remember playing Spore with my students nearly a decade ago as we explored cellular organisms and evolution. It seems almost quaint now. Here are some of my favorite current science games.
Minecraft is easily one of the most popular video games of all time, and it’s easy to see why. It’s like digital LEGO and it allows the full creativity of students to be on display as they create anything their mind can imagine. I have used it frequently to teach social emotional skills with my students with autism. The Minecraft world also keeps true to many of the the rules of our natural world (apart from Creepers and rainbow sheep) which makes it wonderful for scientific exploration. And the education edition of Minecraft (which just received a major update) takes that even further. That includes exploring biodiversity of the many animals as well as sustainability, renewable energy, and deforestation through the variety of Minecraft biomes. You can create engineering challenges like bridge building and roller coasters or explore outer space or inside a cell. You can take it even further with the new Chemistry Kit, Coding Kit, or explore Science Island. For variety and breadth of gamified learning experiences, Minecraft: Education Edition is your best bet.
Legends of Learning is a whole platform that’s all about Science (and Math) games. I’m talking like 1000+ games across 140+ topics for elementary and middle school students. You can find them broadly across earth science, life science, and physical science. Teachers can set up a playlist for students or quickly begin assigning individual games. And all of the games are aligned directly to the Next Generation Science Standards. I will say that not all of the games are great, but there is a teacher and student rating system that lets you know which ones are the most fun and most informative. It also tells you whether the games are focused more on assessment or instruction. It does function as a one-stop science games shop where you can regularly monitor student progress.
- Food Fight – Which species will reign supreme? Find out in this intense battle. Take it further with printable species cards.
- Guts and Bolts – This wonderfully gruesome game explores the interplay of human body systems as you help Moby construct a cyborg Tim.
- Sortify – This is a game in which students categorize and sort information from BrainPOP movies into bins representing key concepts. Students earn more points when sorting tiles into bins labeled with more complex concepts. Science related topics include animals, dinosaurs, space exploration, and the periodic table. Check out the trailer or see how to play.
- The Meaning of Beep – This is a game of context clues and synonyms. You attempt to guess the correct word given related information. For science try concepts like cell specialization or the Greenhouse Effect or famous scientists like Nikola Tesla Eleanor Roosevelt. See more on how to play.
- Time Zone X – You can restore order to the timeline across a number of themes. Get enough right and you can unlock other themes. Get them all in a category and receive a historical artifact. The list of topics available is immense and covers everything from Albert Einstein to the wind energy. See how to play or even create your own time cards.
PBS has a wide array of *FREE* learning resources for students of all ages. The best place to start is usually with PBS Learning Media. It functions as the one-stop shop where teachers can find interactive lessons, videos, documents, and other resources to support science (and other) learning. It also allows teachers to create their own activities with the Lesson Builder, Quiz Maker, Storyboard, and Puzzle Builder in addition to organizing assignments. Apart from those resources though where you can learn about science in a more traditional context, they also have various STEM games too including ones like Railway Hero which have been made accessible for students with disabilities. Here are some other free games they produce.
- PBS Kids – Games for the early childhood set based on the tv shows your kids already enjoy. Some of my favorites includes ridding invasive species with Plum’s Landing, exploring animal adaptations with the Wild Kratts, experiencing the weather with Sid the Science Kid, or mastering roller coaster engineering with the Cat in the Hat.
- NOVA Labs – These more advanced games explore evolution, cybersecurity, RNA, clouds, energy, and the sun.
At first TinyBop may seem like some shiny and colorful apps for little kids, but I have to say they have held my adult interest for quite a while. And the level of complexity some of the apps dive into is surprising. They currently have 17 apps organized into an explorers library and digital toys which are cheaper when purchased in a bundle.
- Explorer’s Library – These are interactive models, but they feel like games as play with exploding volcanos or watch the reaction when you sting yourself with a bee or eat too much junk food. The apps include The Human Body, Plants, Homes, Simple Machines, The Earth, Weather, Skyscrapers, Space, Mammals, Coral Reefs, and States of Matter.
- Digital Toys – These are more like playful construction kits where kids can build, break, and test their ideas. The apps include The Robot Factory, The Everything Machine, The Monsters, The Infinite Arcade, Me: A Kid’s Diary, and The Creature Garden.
Organizations, Apps, & More
- Bird Academy Play Lab – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a number of games and activities related to birds like the time-traveling Flap to the Future, the sound mixer Beastbox, and Bird Song Hero.
- PhET – The University of Colorado Boulder has created more of interactive simulations than games, but it covers a wide variety of higher order science topics including physics, chemistry, earth science, and biology. And when you’re playing with John Travoltage as the actor explores static electricity or by engaging in tug of war to understand force, it certainly feels like a game.
- Field Day Lab – The University of Wisconsin has created some fun and expansive games that explore the atomic world, sustainable farming, deep space virtual reality, and more. I recommend starting in The Yard where you can play 11 mini-games and have fun with magnets, earthquakes, hot-air balloons, or a crystal cave.
- Smithsonian Idea Labs-for astronomy & paleontology
- Stop Disasters – The United Nations created this game to allow students to help manage natural hazards, manage resources, and defend your communities by utilizing resources like schools and hospitals.
There are also a number of fun stand alone apps that you can explore. Common Sense Education has a number of worthwhile lists to supplement your needs. Some of my favorite ones include Crazy Gears, Inventioneers, Cell Strike, Plague Inc, or any of the NY Hall of Science apps.
There are a number of great games specifically for computer science. Here are a few below to teach students to code and how to be positive digital citizens. You can also check 7 Ways to Celebrate CS Ed Week for several other great activities to get started coding.
- Code – This is where most teachers get started. They have curriculum across grade levels as well as one-off games to get started.
- Scratch – Here is where kids can play, create, and remix games in a collaborative community. And the 3.0 version allows for many new integration capabilities.
- Tynker – They have coding games for almost everything, and it even allows to create editors and content for other games like Minecraft.
- Swift Playgrounds – This is Apple’s playful middle school CS app.
- Gamestar Mechanic – You can play games to learn how to make games.
- Code Monkey – They have a whole early exploration in CS curriculum where playing with animals helps build your skills.
- Digital Passport – Common Sense Media’s 6 games on digital citizenship for elementary students
- Digital Compass – Common Sense Media’s game for middle school students encouraging them to make smart digital choices
- Be Internet Awesome – Google’s foray into playful digital citizenship
There are certainly more games out there as well as other tools for science creation, but for now this should give any class a solid start. So get playing and ifyou want more you can check out my favorite games for social studies.