Long before President Obama came on the scene it was clear that America needed change. Focused on shifting the infrastructure of our educational system, NT Etuk, CEO and founder of Dimension U, is set to shift the perspective of how kids learn by putting students first and bringing fun into the classroom through his educational video game series. A key part of his approach is DU the Math, a five-week national scholarship tournament that engages kids (grades 3-9) and encourages math competence through game play. BlackEnterprise.com got a chance to speak with Etuk to learn how his groundbreaking idea evolved and why he’s so passionate about getting kids interested in STEM at an early age.
How did the idea of fusing video games and education come to life?
I was a volunteer student for the Big Brothers & Big Sisters program [and] my little brother, Darien; his mother wanted me to teach him algebra. He’s a sharp kid that was bursting with intelligence, passion and very enthusiastic about everything he was interested, which was not algebra. So I sat down with him and the challenge that we faced was he was going into the 9th grade and I was [trying to] teach him X + 5 = Y. The problem was he could not remember what 9 X 4 was. I was like, Wow, I have to get you up on basically 3rd to 8th grade in two months, otherwise I am afraid of what is going to happen so we began buckling down and started hitting the lessons.
I studied math in college, and it is not easy and in the process of teaching him, I completely lost him. We were actually getting better, and he was improving but I had made some of the fundamental mistakes I think that many of the teachers make in the education system, which is that it is so focused on the outcome of scores that there is so little time to be creative, that they take all of the fun out of the process. So after two months he fired me, he went to his mom and asked her for me to stop teaching him.
That was sort of the epiphany and the awareness, that there is a whole generation of kids that are being lost in the education system because of the way they process information, the way that get engaged in anything whether it is social networking, instant messaging, email, video games, texting friends constantly, etc. The way that they process and use this information, none of this comes into the classroom. So now you end up with this schizophrenic society of kids where they are in control of everything on the outside, they go into class room, and it is now, “you sit here, you speak when I tell you to speak, etc.” and then the student gets turned off by these notions. The idea behind the company was to solve that problem.
What were some of the hurdles you faced getting the program off the ground?
The vast majority of education systems around the world ask the question, “What do we have to do to give every child who wants one a great education?” This is a supply side question, where the supply is the number of teachers, number of schools, amount of funding, etc. We are flipping the question. We ask, “How do we get every child to ask for a great education?” This is a fundamentally different approach, a paradigm shift, that allows for a completely different set of solutions. As we make this work, we are literally changing the paradigm for education around the world. But, as with anything completely new to the world, we have faced our challenges with funding, with acceptance of the idea, with educators who are concerned with letting go of control, with adults who have a negative perception of videogames in general.
For the skeptics, can you explain how do you make video games an educational tool?
When I was 11 in Nigeria, there was not a lot to do; I taught myself six programming languages because I thought it was fun. I grew up on adventure games, like Zork, during the Commodore 64 and Atari days. What I really learned from programming video games and playing them, was that video games are among the greatest teaching tools ever created and we don’t typically think of them like that. The way that it works is that if you watch a kid who picks up a new video game, they have no idea of how to get through it from the character’s capabilities, the world, the tools, or the logic. Kids faced with a problem to complete the game go 10 minutes in, they fail, restart it again, go 20 minutes and fail, restart again until they master the game. But the first thing that they do when they run into a problem in the classroom is they raise their hand. Classrooms seem to be getting rid of the motivation for kids to actually power all the way through.
So as of a result of that, we said let’s bring a bit of what is going on in video games to veer on the classroom that’s been the inspiration really. Seeing and understanding it, which is all psychology. The fundamental psychology behind the video game is the idea that you actually are not motivated to solve this problem until you get there. That [idea] is what we have reversed in schools. For example, they are teaching kids coordinates systems, which is an abstract concept that sits in a text book, and students have no idea if they are ever going to use it in real-life versus telling students, “Imagine you’re at 14th Street and 3rd Avenue and I want you to use the coordinal system map to figure out how to get to Central Park.” Now that is a mathematical abstract way to challenge students.