Teacher by Day – Game Developer by Night

At E-Line, we’re often impressed by the games that teachers create to aid their students in learning. Martin Esterman, a teacher from Marietta, GA, is a great example. In 2012, Martin won the Educator Stream of the National STEM Video Game Challenge for his game, Addition Blocks, that helps students increase addition speed and accuracy. Since winning the Challenge, Martin has received a great deal of exposure for his game and was the recent recipient of a Channel 11 Class Act Award. In the Q & A below, we asked Martin to share information about what inspired him to create Addition Blocks and why he thinks games are beneficial for learning.

Screen shot 2013-04-22 at 2.08.48 PM

Martin, thanks very much for being a part of this interview. Why don’t we start with you telling us a bit about your teaching life. What grade(s) and subject(s) do you teach? How long have you been teaching?

Martin:  Hey Kerri, great to talk with you again! Teaching is actually my second career. Originally, I was a software engineer for several small companies until I discovered how much I enjoyed working with middle-schoolers. Very clearly, I was led to leave the world of computers, and returned to school to earn my Master’s degree in Secondary Math Education. I’ve been teaching Math for 11 years, all at the middle school level, and primarily advanced students. I was recognized as a “Georgia Master Teacher” in 2006. Currently, I teach in a STEM Magnet program at Marietta Middle School, in Marietta, Ga. I absolutely love it, because I can combine my engineering & computer background with the math curriculum.

What inspired you to create the game?

Martin:  I was thinking about a way to make a game to practice addition of integers. The ‘Bejeweled’ /Pattern matching games were pretty popular, so I merged game play with finding sums as the ‘matching’. Pretty quickly, I put the game together, and basically never got around to implementing negative numbers! I liked the simplicity of the game using only the digits 1-9 and finding the sums, so the game just stayed ‘AdditionBlocks.’

Had you been using any games in the classroom prior to making you own? If so, what were your observations about games for learning?

Martin:  One of my goals for my classroom is to show my students that math can be fun. So, whenever I can, I bring a game or activity or project into the learning process. I use games to help practice whatever we are learning at the time. Most of the games I used early in my career were pencil-and-paper games or puzzles – one of my favorites is “Cross-Sums” (more popularly known now as Kakuro). I’ve made up games like “Percent Bingo,” where I give the students a decimal or fraction, and they have to turn the number into a percent.

Overall, I believe that playing games and doing puzzles as part of my teaching creates an environment where students can relax and have fun (if they *choose,* ha!); which makes the classroom very conducive to learning. Additionally, if I have ‘earned’ the credit that we will have fun in my class, then students are more responsive to the more rote work of lecture and class work when that has to be done. As a plus, I believe some of my middle schoolers actually begin to enjoy ‘doing math.’

How long did it take to make Addition Blocks? What sort of process did you go through? Had you ever made a game before?

Martin:  The very first version of the game took maybe 3 or 4 months working on weekends and over breaks. When I discovered the STEM Video Game Challenge, I took another 3 or 4 months and made the game more playable, adding the speed and difficulty options, implementing the achievement system, and fixing some bugs. Over the summer I spent a lot of time on the game, improving graphics, (more) bug fixes, and porting to HTML, iOS, and Android.

I have made quite a few games, as this is a hobby of mine that actually started when I was in middle school! I made a computer version of Kakuro (Cross-Sums) 6 or 7 years ago that I have my students routinely play. I also made a 4-in-a-row game based on the Factor Game for practicing integer multiplication. However, AdditionBlocks is the first game that actually went public, primarily due to the STEM Video Game Challenge and E-Line Media.

How often do you use Addition Blocks with your students? What sort of response have you witnessed?

Martin:  Since I teach in a Middle School Magnet program, most of my students are advanced learners, so I use the game as a warm-up/activator or after tests/quizzes when students have finished early. But I do have students who ask if they can play the game during class!

The response to the game from parents and teachers has just been amazing, and I’ve really been humbled. In fact, a few of my co-teachers are addicted to the game! Several other teachers have told me they have started using AdditionBlocks in their elementary classrooms. One parent has told me that she had her child play the game every day for 5-10 minutes, and has noticed an improvement in her child’s adding skills.

How can teachers begin using it now?

Martin:  First, understand the game is not intended to *teach* basic addition, but to improve a student’s speed and accuracy. If you see a student ‘counting’ to add (“5 + 3 is 5-6-7-8”) or using their fingers, their fluency is low, and they should start the child on the ‘slow’ speed and ‘easy’ difficulty…But, AdditionBlocks is really for anyone to increase their speed. Interestingly, students will also begin to see patterns with numbers and sums. AdditionBlocks can be used to show how ‘grouping’ by 10s will help in addition, especially when students get to higher sums in the game.

However, I think with any basic skill development activity, whether it is done with pencil and paper, or using AdditionBlocks, practice needs to be done routinely (2-3 times per week) for short periods of time (5-10 minutes). Students also need to see they are improving by charting or graphing their progress.

What does the future hold for Addition Blocks?

Martin:  I am currently working on the next version to be released early summer. I’ve contracted with a graphic designer and we are re-doing all the graphics. The new version will have 4 game modes, including a Practice Mode, and new achievements. Wait until you play the challenge mode! Ha! Anyway, ‘Like’ AdditionBlocks on the Facebook page for news and updates!

Do you have any other games in the works?

Martin:  I hope to have MultiplicationBlocks and IntegerBlocks completed this summer as well. The Product Game just needs some tweaking and bug fixes. I also have a couple of games for practicing decimals, fractions and percents – The Percent Bingo game along with “Percentominos.” Another game focuses solely on fractions that can be used to show equivalent fractions, comparing and even adding. I’ve got a lot of other ideas that I would love to see produced!

Thank you again, Martin. We look forward to seeing what happens with Addition Blocks!

Thanks, Kerri and everyone at E-Line! I really have enjoyed working with this company.

Advertisements

On the Road Teaching Youth Game Design

We believe that one of the best ways to support the games for learning ecosystem is to get out into the field and do hands-on work with youth. Since the very early days of Gamestar Mechanic, we’ve partnered with organizations who shared that goal. In 2010, we started working with the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards through their recently added Video Game Design Category. The Awards received a generous grant from the AMD Foundation to conduct game design workshops across the country and they asked us to be a part of the fun. Together, we ran several programs to introduce youth to the concepts of game design – core mechanics, game play elements, building balanced systems – and led hundreds of students through exciting physical and digital game making exercises. Not only was this an incredible way for us to see firsthand how youth interacted with Gamestar Mechanic, it also helped us shape the tools and content we would later develop.

In addition to working with the Scholastic Awards, we also were able to increase our On the Road schedule through two generous grants to the National STEM Video Game Challenge, for which we are a co-presenter along with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. These grants came from the Hive NYC Learning Network and the Institute of Museum and Library Services and  have enabled us to facilitate more than 30 game design workshops across the country since 2013 began.

KS kids

Youth in Independence, KS, making physical games.

The majority of these game design workshops have taken place in museums and libraries, which are making a large push to become innovative centers for 21st century learning. By adopting Maker Space like programs, these venues are re-inventing themselves to fit the demands of an ever-evolving world. For some youth, museums and libraries also the only places where they’re able to interact with technology, making this transition critical for the community at large. We have been very fortunate to be a part of this movement through our workshops series and are excited to continue to find opportunities to interact directly with young people.

BEM: Or Before E-Line Media

Even those who know us well sometimes don’t know that before there was E-Line Media, there was E-Line Ventures. E-Line Ventures was conceived by founders Michael Angst and Alan Gershenfeld with the vision of angel investing in digital media that could engage and empower youth. We wanted to create proof points of companies that could find the organic alignment between making money and making meaningful social impact. Based on these proof points, the plan was to raise a double-bottom-line fund focused on impact games and, possibly, other youth media platforms. We studied a number of media sectors and ultimately concluded that we could make the most impact with a primary focus on computer and video games.

After looking at more than hundred potential investment opportunities, it was clear that there is a gap in publishing expertise within the ecosystem of learning and social impact games. We found leading commercial game industry and educational publishers reluctant to embrace these projects because the risk profile is too high and the teams leading these projects lack certain core skills and assets required to support impact-focused games. Despite a growing number of venture capitalists that want to invest in the educational space, most projects lack investable management teams to attract venture capital. Until more experienced management teams demonstrate evidence of market traction or can refer to success stories in the sector, venture investors will continue to watch from the sidelines.

This is a visual that summarizes what we observed:

game-based-learning-chart 2

To help realize the potential for digital games to make meaningful learning impact and to help scale the overall sector, we felt we could be most effective as a publisher of game-based learning products and services. Our E-Line Ventures investment approach became the E-Line Media publishing approach, with a new goal to create a double-bottom line company founded specifically with the mission of scaling research-based learning platforms in a manner that balances financial sustainability, affordability, and reach to underserved communities. We hope that we will create commercial proof points as well as methodologies that can help rise the overall sector of game-based learning and ultimately positively effect more youth.