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Q&A: Get to know the STEM Video Game Challenge

ACER news 8 minute read

We had the opportunity to talk with Lisa van Beeck, a Research Fellow at ACER and Project Director of the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge. Lisa is an expert across science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and has a particular passion for this valuable project and the opportunities it offers students around Australia.

What is the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge and why should young people join? 

The challenge is a free national video game development contest for students in years 3 to 12. It is a fantastic way for students to engage in an authentic STEM-based cross-curricula unit of work.  

We know that jobs in STEM are growing twice as fast as non-STEM occupations. Research shows we need to reach students by age 15 to influence their long-term participation in STEM. The Australian STEM Video Game Challenge seeks to engage students in STEM subjects, enable students to develop real-world skills and empower more students to choose STEM careers. 

We encourage students to work in groups of up to 4. This emulates a real work environment and helps to build skills in communication and conflict management. Also, it’s a lot of work to make a video game! So why not share the workload? Plus, many of our participants comment on how much they enjoyed building a game with their friends. 

Do you have a favourite success story from the challenge? 

There are so many wonderful stories that we hear from mentors about increased student engagement in school generally and STEM subjects specifically. Something we often hear about, is the impact on students who are disengaged with school. It is not uncommon for us to have a teacher seek us out at PAX, the gaming expo where we showcase the winners, and thank us for running the challenge. They then tell us about a student who they had trouble reaching. Despite seemingly having tried everything. But once they started working on an entry in the STEM Video Game Challenge, they noticed the student turning up to class, engaging in discussion and getting the work done. It is a really unique opportunity for students to produce something tangible that feels relevant to them. It can be a real light bulb moment for some students. 

My favourite story is the team of students in Queensland who created their game with a 500 km distance between team members. The team included 3 brothers in one town who teamed up with a student on the other side of the state. They only met in person once and created their entire game virtually. You can see how they did it here:

Many schools make the STEM Video Game Challenge a centrepiece of their learning. Can you describe some of the creative ways that schools and students have engaged with the challenge?  

Many schools make the challenge a central part of their program for a term or semester. The challenge has a new theme each year, which gives the school a new problem to solve in their video game. These schools typically have a strong culture of engagement in STEM subjects. The key part of developing this strong culture is recognising students’ work through some sort of celebration when the entries have been submitted. This is often a party, where parents or other classes are invited to come and play the games entered in the challenge. They focus on the process and the commitment the students showed to do something hard – create a video game. This recognition empowers students to try other hard things and has a really positive impact on students’ confidence. 

How do you enter the challenge?  

Students need an adult to be their team mentor. Mentors can be classroom teachers, specialist teachers, lunchtime activity coordinators, parents, or adult friends. The mentor takes care of registering the team and acts as the liaison between the students and the challenge coordinators. 

To complete the challenge, teams must submit a playable game as well as a Game Design Document (GDD). The GDD is a report documenting their plan, game instructions, problem-solving, testing, and reflections on the game development process. This is an important accompaniment to the game and makes up part of the overall score of their entry. It helps judges to understand what students intended in order for them to award the highest mark possible in each judging criterion. It also provides teachers with a tangible piece of work to support student reporting.  

Mentors can find a template for the GDD on our website that is differentiated for the three age groups: years 3 to 6, years 7 to 9 and years 10 to 12. We have created a handy resource on our website  that maps each component of the GDD or game development process to the Australian Curriculum. 

How important are mentors in the STEM Video Game Challenge? 

The main role of the mentor is to project manage. They help keep the team's expectations realistic and to manage their time so they can meet the submission date. Teachers make excellent mentors, even if they don’t have strong digital skills. Popular game development platforms like Scratch, GODOT Engine and Unreal Engine all have great tutorials on their websites. The students love diving into these and tend to figure out the technical aspects of programming through trial and error.  

The STEM Video Game Challenge is a win-win for teachers, it is engaging for students and useful as a student reporting tool. Our GDD templates and scoring rubrics are designed to help teachers keep their team on track. We have built in a self-reflection section in the GDD and the curriculum links section on our website shows exactly which strands of the curriculum are being demonstrated through work on an entry in the STEM VGC. 

What would you say to a young person or mentor considering joining the challenge?  

The STEM VGC is the only competition of its kind where teams create a complete product from start to finish. It is an opportunity for teams to immerse themselves in something meaningful that they can share with their friends and family, and PLAY with them too! 

It is also a great way for mentors to learn alongside the students and build their own confidence and skills.   


Ready to join the 2024 Australian STEM Video Game Challenge? Registrations are currently open and details on the current theme ‘Stars’ are available. Get ready to register today for the submission window, starting 8 July.  

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