OC esports federation produces positive STEM learning outcomes, researchers say

Students playing esportsStudents who participated in a national esports league that launched in Orange County became more interested in STEM careers, demonstrated greater critical thinking skills and reported higher levels of school engagement, according to newly released research from UC Irvine.

In fact, after two years of analyzing data, researchers found that students affiliated with the North America Scholastic Esports Federation produced more positive outcomes in nearly every category measured.

Constance Steinkuehler, a professor of Informatics at UCI, has been been exploring the nexus between games and authentic learning experiences for more than a decade.

“You can’t just guess at whether a new approach to learning will be effective,” Steinkuehler said. “Teenagers are tricky. They can’t be talked into liking something or easily convinced that certain classes are relevant.”

“These data suggest that NASEF is onto something important with scholastic esports,” she added.

Girls playing esports

Funded by the Samueli Foundation, the North America Scholastic Esports Federation was established as the Orange County High School Esports League in late 2017 with support from OCDE, UCI and other partners seeking to leverage the popularity of gaming to promote collaboration, engagement, problem-solving and other skills.

In the first year, UCI found natural ties between league activities and state standards in science, math and English. NASEF took it a step further by developing digital toolkits and curriculum to amplify the educational content.

For example, students were analyzing their gameplay data, but the federation added structure and scaffolding to formally highlight the connections to data science and STEM. Materials were then distributed to all NASEF clubs and developed into high school curricula, which has been approved by the state of California and can be adapted for other states.

Mentorships and opportunities for student leadership also produced benefits in science, math and English.

“The tide has turned,” said NASEF Chief Education Officer Tom Turner, who is also an executive director in OCDE’s Educational Services division. “Esports and video games used to be seen as negatives by parents and educators, but this research documents the positive benefits children realize when they’re involved in esports in an NASEF club, with structured learning built right into the fun.”

“It’s time for all of us to embrace this new world of learning and to give our children the ability to learn while doing what they love,” Turner said.

Students on computers participating in online gamingNASEF continued to evaluate evidence of learning in year two, and the results showed significant positive outcomes across nearly every variable measured, including STEM attitudes and career knowledge, as well as skills like critical thinking and mastery orientation.

The data compared favorably to other after-school options, particularly in the areas of STEM participation, career knowledge, grit, perseverance, relationships with adults, and critical thinking.

“We need to be clear that these learning outcomes cannot be extrapolated to other esports programs or leagues,” said Gerald Solomon, executive director of the Samueli Foundation and founder of NASEF. “There is a huge difference between esports in general and NASEF’s approach of scholastic esports. We put learning first, and the documented gains are fantastic.”

“Not only are these young people thrilled to participate in clubs and classes, they’re building a foundation that will help them thrive,” Solomon said.

For more information about the North America Scholastic Esports Federation, visit www.esportsfed.org.