Award-winning educational game may help level playing field

By Kristen Holland Shear / Week of Jan. 1-7, 2011

Is it possible to “play” your way to an A in organic chemistry?

A program designed by a team of UT Southwestern researchers seeking to answer that question recently received an Innovative Program Award from the National Association of Medical Minority Educators (NAMME).

Drs. Lewis Calver, left, Kenneth Coulter

Offered through the Office of Minority Student Affairs at the medical center, the Scholars Program in Organic Chemistry (SPOC) is a 10-week summer enrichment initiative for underrepresented minority or disadvantaged undergraduate students. The program, which UT Southwestern offered for the first time this past summer, differs from similar offerings in that it doubled as a randomized, controlled research study on the effects of using gaming technology rather than standard classroom methods to teach organic chemistry. The program also offered clinical preceptorships with UT Southwestern practicing physicians.

Ada Granado, director of minority student affairs, said the researchers involved wanted to determine which method of teaching organic chemistry was more effective at conveying information and developing spatial relationship and reasoning abilities.

The preliminary results are clear: The male students who had access to the educational, or “serious,” game fared much better and learned more than their counterparts without access. The female participants with access to the game, however, fared worse than those who relied on traditional classroom instruction.

“By using gaming, the male students improved 21 percent after 10 weeks of instruction while women only improved their knowledge by 13 percent,” she said. “We hypothesize that the increased effectiveness among male students may be related to the fact that men are typically more familiar with gaming technology than women.”

For this study, 28 minority pre-medical students attended a 10-week organic chemistry course taught by doctoral candidates in the Department of Biochemistry. The students, who had completed their freshman year of college, were divided into two groups that had no contact with each other. The sole instructional difference between the groups was that one had access to the game – called OrgoQuest – and the other did not. Teachers supplemented instruction for the control group, which did not have access to the game, with written, two-dimensional, non-dynamic exercises typically offered in organic chemistry courses.

Lewis Calver, chairman of the biomedical communications graduate program and principal investigator of the study, said the game, which was designed and developed by Kenneth Coulter, assistant professor of biomedical communications, is the first of many applications his team hopes to develop as part of the department’s new medical educational game initiative. In 2009 a team of researchers from UT Southwestern and UT Dallas received nearly $230,000 from the UT System’s Transforming Undergraduate Education Program to develop the game and determine whether its use improved the performance of minority and disadvantaged college students in organic chemistry.

Mr. Calver said the team chose to start with organic chemistry because it is considered a roadblock to medical school for many students, particularly minorities.

“You can either handle organic chemistry and you continue in pre-med or you find something else to do,” he said. “Our goal is that each student who plays this game will get an A on their first organic chemistry exam. If they can pass that test, they’re well on their way.”

Ms. Granado, who presented the game and program in September at the NAMME’s awards ceremony, said that while the findings are preliminary, they suggest that gaming can be an effective classroom tool for certain groups.

“Since the greatest need to increase prospective applicants to medical school is in minority males, using gaming technology to teach organic chemistry may be a strategy that can effectively target that group,” she said.

Other UT Southwestern researchers involved in the study and program included Dr. John MacMillan, assistant professor of biochemistry; Jamie Rogers and Kathleen Spivey, student research assistants in biochemistry; Angela Diehl, instructor in biomedical communications; Greta Epps, education coordinator; and Dr. Byron Cryer, associate dean for minority student affairs.

Watch a brief preview of the organic chemistry game at