Kids will be kids, and sometimes those kids don’t want to go to school. But that’s rarely the case for the students in Jeff Hendrickson’s business class at Shasta High School in Northern California. Hendrickson regularly uses Knowledge Matters web-based computer simulations to teach his class. Whether the “sim” is about personal finance, accounting, hotel management, retail, or restaurants, attendance and enthusiasm are usually high.
Hendrickson teaches Photoshop, marketing, business management, and other related classes. He thinks back to about ten years ago when he decided to use the sims to make his business classes “more real world, more interactive.”
And that can translate into better attendance. As Hendrickson recalls one parent telling him, “My son was pretty sick last week but wanted to go to school because he didn’t want to miss the simulation class. That’s not something I’m used to hearing from him. He’s always liked taking days off.”
If you take a look at the typical list of college courses these days, you will see gaming and game development have become standard offerings. Yes, younger people like to play games. But they have also been around games enough to see the potential for using them as instructional tools. Hendrickson sees no point in fighting against that particular tide.
"When you teach a computer lab, you realize that it takes students about two seconds to figure out what games are on the Internet, and another second to start playing them. But when my students are using sims, they aren’t thinking about playing games; they’re using a game-like interface to find ways to grow their businesses. And if they can play a game and learn something along the way, I think that’s great."
Hendrickson says that many of his students seem to be spinning their wheels, with no idea of what to do in their future. Some say they plan to take general studies in college. And he is, of course, very supportive of any student’s plan that involves higher education. But one of his major goals is to get his students interested in a specific career, whether getting there requires a college degree, specialized training, an internship, or a job. One of the things he likes about the restaurant simulation is that, since it involves a common activity among families, it helps students take a look at the world around them in terms of potential professions.
Hendrickson says that many parents are impressed by this kind of practical knowledge their kids are acquiring. And for many of these same parents, he said, this is the first time they feel like their child is taking an interest in something that could lead to an actual career. For many students, this can be their first time their parents show an active interest in their child’s future.
Since the point of his class is to teach students how to be successful businesspeople, Hendrickson bases his grades on the net profit of each student’s business. There are so many ways to make a business run well, he says, that it’s fun to see how well each student’s strategy succeeds.
Providing a relevant education: Through real-world decision-making, instant feedback, and use of popular gaming technology, Knowledge Matters simulations capture and hold students’ attention. By portraying in a realistic way how different businesses run from day to day, the sims transform what could be dull text-book learning to an exploration of potential career choices.
Practical grading: Hendrickson judges his students the way they will be judged in the working world: by how well they were able to manage a business, measured using a non-subjective scale: profitability. This practical approach resonates for many students who otherwise are not engaged in traditional education.
Improved grades and attendance: By making education meaningful, sims engage students and encourage them to attend class. Competition among students encourages them to work hard, run their businesses to the best of their abilities–and do their best to achieve a grade they can relate to.
Extremely detailed lessons: As part of the restaurant sim, students learn to manage the most minute details. For each item on their virtual restaurant’s menu, students must price out every single ingredient, make sure that each ingredient is on hand, and that perishable ingredients have not gone bad. If, for example, a dairy product ingredient goes bad, students learn right away what that does to their bottom line.
Memorable lessons: By using the simulations to connect his lessons to real life, Hendrickson believes that his instruction becomes more memorable. When, for example, students visit a restaurant and see the dynamics they’ve studied in class play themselves out in real life, his teaching takes on a deeper resonance.
Makes Learning fun: This is true for both students and teachers. “Using the sims gives me a chance to get up from behind my desk, walk around a bit, and help students as they work. The greatest part is when you see a light go on and hear a student say, ‘Okay, now I get this. Running a business is pretty cool!’”