Putting kids on learning trail

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2008 - 10:00 AM

Portage Interactive, a Minneapolis computer game development firm, navigates new educational realities with its "TeamTreks" software.

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A screen grab from “Team Treks,” which is used by schools in Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Creator Mike Palmquist also designed the seminal computer game “Oregon Trail.”

On a corner shelf in Mike Palmquist's office in the downtown Warehouse District, nestled next to a Nintendo Gameboy, is an old Apple IIe computer.

Palmquist, a software designer, keeps the vintage classroom computer around for both practical and nostalgic reasons.

Every now and then, he explained, someone has a question about the "Oregon Trail," the iconic educational game that made the IIe a staple in American grade schools. But Palmquist, who helped create "Oregon Trail 3" and 4, also sees the computer as muse of sorts.

"It was really a software development culture that still kind of informs the way we do things today," said Palmquist, president of Portage Interactive, a Minneapolis-based start-up that designs educational computer games.

"It was the first piece of software that had a game format that was an immersive experience. You were doing something. You were going somewhere."

Palmquist, who designed games like "Amazon Trail" for the Minnesota Educational Computing Corp. and the Learning Co., hopes some of that old "Oregon Trail" magic will rub off on "TeamTreks," an Internet-based interactive computer game Portage launched this year. The game sets students in Glacier Bay, Alaska, where they must work together to overcome obstacles and reach their cabin. Besides teaching leadership and teamwork, "TeamTreks" tests students' reading and math skills and compares their performances to state standards.

In October, Portage signed a five-year distribution agreement with Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co. in Iowa. Schools in Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota and Wisconsin use "TeamTreks."

"It's very engaging for students," said Sheri Glew, a senior manager at Kendall/Hunt for K-12 digital learning.

"It will be something that they will enjoy."

According to research firm Frost & Sullivan, educational computer games generate about $150 million to $250 million in annual revenue, a tiny market compared with the $12 billion video game industry. But demand is growing, especially as public officials place more pressure on teachers to boost student test scores, said Aimee Roberts, a digital media analyst for Frost & Sullivan.

"The market has been gaining traction," Roberts said. Teachers "are willing to try anything to get kids' attention and retain their attention. Kids are just more engaged with the computer."

Palmquist, who earned a master's degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Education, decries the lack of fun in U.S. classrooms today but recognizes the reality of federally mandated testing.

"The problem is that there are still a lot of teachers that are kind of forced to teach to a test," Palmquist said. "If [students] don't pass, [schools] don't get money. It is a real clear proposition.

"There are a lot of teachers that don't appreciate that game-play as a problem-solving behavior is a high-tech, 21st-century skill," he said. "You know, playing a game and being good at it means that you have to make a lot of hypotheses, a lot of decisions, a lot of retrial. Those are skills that the outside world values very highly. I think schools have to figure out a way to balance [work and] ... play."

In "TeamTreks," students in fourth to seventh grades find themselves at an unknown location near Glacier Bay, Alaska. Team members must work their way back to the home cabin before someone calls for a rescue. Along the way, students learn about Alaska's history and culture, identify animals and birds and practice navigation and map reading.

By shifting the game online, students can play outside of their classrooms. Teachers supervise the game and can even change players and rules. "TeamTreks" tests reading skills by quizzing students on information found in the game's kayak manual and wildlife identification books. Teachers can track student performance over time and compare it with state standards in math and reading comprehension.

The game "gives teachers a good way to do before-and-after snapshots," Palmquist said. "They will see some improvements in those scores because, for the kids to succeed, they will have to practice the skills that are part of the test."

Experts see validity in this approach.

Games "can be set up to do an ongoing assessment and evaluations of student skills within the context of the game," said Scott McLeod, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University.

"If we substitute the word 'simulations' for 'video games,' most people see the possibilities. Corporations, the military, medicine and other fields are latching on to the ability of games/simulations to allow for safe skills practice before immersion in situations that have real-world consequences."

Lee Wilson, president of Headway Strategies, a consulting firm in Texas that advises educational technology firms, says schools are especially interested in such games because they can help lower-performing students who don't respond to traditional teaching methods.

"The guys who did 'Oregon Trail' and 'Amazon Trail' are pioneers with this stuff," Wilson said. "If anyone can do it, they can."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744

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