Trading goats and researching metallurgy, entwined with a youthful love story amidst the creation of civilization in Ancient Mesopotamia is not the formula one would expect to see when a middle school math teacher sets out to raise the dismal track record of US students in international math tests. Why does it work? Because goats, or metallurgy, or wherever else a civilization story can take you, helps math make sense. A compelling story pedagogy takes learning deeper.

Games and apps are the perfect format through which we can deliver compelling, story-based math content to students by the classroom. Yet, the games currently available ubiquitously present math as a drill-and-kill experience, often removing students from the flow (and thus the fun) of the game when the math comes onto the screen.

But math is not disconnected from story. Math can be part of the story, just as math underlies and is involved in so many aspects of everyday life. Math teacher Scott Laidlaw, Ed.D. realized that using math as a key element that moves story along, as problems unfold, was crucial to creating engaged students eager to learn through the story-based games he developed and used in his classroom at Roots and Wings Community School in Questa, New Mexico, just north of Taos, New Mexico.

And he wondered if could reach more students, and maybe just help the US improve its dismal track record in math, by engaging middle school math students in compelling online games where math is used, in context and with purpose, to move the story along. Dr. Laidlaw thus founded Imagine Education, now MidSchoolMath, with the intent to share his story-based math games with students nationwide.

Out of the same mountain community where Dr. Laidlaw first began using story-based epic games to teach math, MidSchoolMath works today to create exciting and engaging online versions of these classroom games. Local middle school students offer opinions on artwork, teachers explain what they need in a game and everyone offers a hand when testing, as we work through each phase of our iterative design process. MidSchoolMath is committed to being part of the Taos community and is pleased to partner with Localogy, a youth development organization based in Questa that is a long-standing partner of Roots and Wings Community School, to submit Empires for consideration in this Apps for Class Challenge.

Empires is an online game for middle-school students, aligned to the Common Core State Standards for 7th grade math, using innovative pedagogy and connected play. Empires runs in a wide range of web browsers, accessible via desktops computers, laptops, netbooks, tablets and iPads, to ensure compatibility and access for low-tech and high-tech schools.

Set in Ancient Mesopotamia during the Neolothic Era, at the brink of the agricultural revolution and the beginning of trade economies, Empires invites students into an epic civilization story, with characters, a rich plot and individual empires run by each student Provident. Students manage their empire, tallying assets, investing and distributing resources as they choose across a vast array of options that appeal to boys and girls, from goats to metallurgy, from armies to agriculture, and from caring for children and communities. As each activity unfolds, opportunities for deep learning of math – and repetitive practice – appear, woven into the context of the game. Math uniquely comes to life within Empires. Ratios and proportional relationships are explored as resources are invested in projects; students learn about and practice percentages as they calculate the odds of an attack goat rising; the Pythagorean Theorem serves as a tool that allows the measurement of distance and time between a neighboring empire to complete a trade. Peer-to-peer interactions are encouraged, in the classroom and in the socially-networked game as story plays out, creating rich opportunities for furthering educational understanding.

Empires is a modular game, well-suited to use in 50 minute class increments. The game offers the critical ability to save mid-game, even if the student has not yet solved a math problem in its entirety. Teachers can monitor student progress, identify strengths and weak points and link performance data to real-time assessment within the teacher dashboard and LMS.

Story-based, strategic and collaborative, Empires is a first-of-its kind math game, setting an entirely new standard in educational gaming, using math within the context of a rich and robust story, and truly leveraging the power and fun of educational games to transform math education. We feel that Empires may just be the game that turns the tide of math education through genuine student engagement and mathematical skill building, while supporting true mathematical understanding.

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