African American youth spend about 50% more time with media than whites, but they make up 2% of people working as developers, engineers, or designers in the gaming industry.
“These kids are wired from the day they are born,” says Ntiedo Etuk, the founder of Tabula Digita, an educational video game company that helps increase engagement in third- through 12th-grade classrooms. “They are doing social networking, e-mail, instant messaging, and video games,” so education needs to be tailored to that.
Blacks make up single digit percentages in most industries requiring a high level of proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and the mathematics achievement gap between blacks and whites is 26 points among fourth-graders and 31 points among eighth-graders—roughly equivalent to three years of learning. Etuk’s solution: In 2003, he launched his company to help increase math engagement in elementary school classrooms.
Tabula Digita’s most popular video game, the multiplayer DimensionU, has elicited 20% to 30% improvement in math scores in 50 school districts across the country, says Etuk, a 2007 nominee for black enterprise’s Business Innovator of the Year Award. In the game students compete to be the first across a timed obstacle course. When they solve a problem correctly they win the tools they need to advance to the next level. When they don’t, a help center window pops up to help them determine what they did wrong and coach them through the problem.
Some educational video games help kids learn science and math because they encourage problem solving, says Leshell Hatley, who through her nonprofit runs an out-of-school program, YouthLab, to teach robotics, computer programming, and mobile-app building to students from third to 12th grades. She agrees with Etuk that if black children are playing video games, then educators should use games to “start where the students are and bring them to where [they] want them to be in terms of education.”
Etuk realized how important engagement was after the parent of a child he tutored in math fired him. “I made the mistake of focusing completely on education,” says Etuk, an engineer who knew six programming languages by the time he was 11. “As well-meaning as I was and as much math as I knew, I wasn’t able to make this interesting to him. I realized this was an indication of how we were losing a whole generation of kids.”
The game, which costs school districts $5 to $20 per student per year, has a reporting system that allows teachers to see how long students played the game, what answers they got right or wrong, and then coordinate follow-up lessons accordingly. The company generated $3 million in school-based revenues in 2009. A home version of DimesionU, which offers only math games at present, became available in November 2010 and can be downloaded at www.dimensionu.com. It features the U Games National Scholarship Tournament, a competition in which elementary- and middle-school students play math games to win prizes and scholarships.