Heartland Series: Q&A with Second Avenue Learning Founder and CEO Victoria Van Voorhis

victoriaThis month, ESA spoke with Second Avenue Learning founder and CEO Victoria Van Voorhis about her start in the video game industry, how video games enhance learning experiences, and collaborating with schools in Rochester, New York, to introduce students to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. Read the Q&A. 

Edited for brevity not content.

Showcasing the geographic diversity of the video game industry, the Heartland Series features interviews with video game publishers, developers, and innovators from across America, highlighting the groundbreaking work and innovation they bring to every corner of the nation. 

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself? What led you to create a company that uses interactive media and video games for education?

One day, while I was teaching in a classroom, I realized I was making a mark on a rock with another rock – and it occurred to me that we were using Stone Age technology in the 21st century. The kids were coming to me with Wikipedia sites and iPods were just coming out. Watching them interact with their media streams made me realize the way that we were teaching wasn’t reaching this generation of students and that we needed to harness the power of digital media to improve educational outcomes. I’d seen some attempts at educational media that were just marketing glitz instead of serious attempts to impact learning outcomes. So, with that, I started Second Avenue Learning in 2006 and have been going ever since.

Also, as a mom, I realized a child’s first teacher is play. If we can harness the motivation and insight that comes through play by directing it and nurturing it in great ways, we can really improve educational outcomes.

Q: Can you give us a quick overview of Second Avenue Learning? How is the company reimagining learning?

The name of the company is a metaphor for finding an alternate path to learning. Making a successful game title is really hard; making a successful game title that teaches is even harder. To make this happen, we brought together an expert team of innovators who collaborate and create. We have learning designers, assessment designers, as well as a creative team that does all of our illustration, animation, and UI/UX or what we refer to as LI/LX because the L is the “learner.” We also have a cohort of developers that split their time between more traditional digital media for education and serious games. Most of them have been hired after graduating from the University of Rochester (U of R) or Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) – both have phenomenal computer science programs and of course everyone knows about the game design school at RIT.

We do a lot of co-creation. We spend a lot of time testing our products and designs with teachers and students to get their input and make sure we’re going to hit the mark. And that’s something that most of our competitors don’t do. It’s a great best practice that really makes our products work better in the environments they’re designed for. Having that intimate relationship with the end customer is really important.

Q: What do you think are the benefits of game-based learning over conventional methods? How do they enhance the learning experience?

Games are a great way to engage students. If an educational game is just fun, then it’s not doing its job. Most of our games are based on an extensive review of the literature. We look to the disciplines of cognitive science and learning sciences, as well as borrow best practices from our entertainment game colleagues and bring those things together. The best entertainment games get you in an immersed state of flow. Educational games can do the same thing.

Engaging students right away is essential. We think that educational games are best used early when you’re introducing a topic, so you can get kids engaged before they’re faced with more traditional materials like textbooks and lectures. Then they’re prepped to learn since kids are designed to learn through play. This way they can experiment, learn to fail, laugh, and start to draw inferences in a very low-stakes way that hooks them on the content and allows them to play with ideas without fear of failure.

Video games also present a really great way to get kids thinking and using what educators call “higher order thinking skills,” which include problem solving, analyzing, and applying their understanding. A lot of the school education kids get is focused on lower order thinking skills, like memorization and recall and that’s why video games work better.

Q: Are there specific topics that lend themselves more easily to learning through interactive video games or does video game learning apply to any topic or subject?

Our company is focused on a couple of segments of the market. One is science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and we’ve done quite a bit of work through the social sciences. It’s easy to make STEM into games because they’re quantitative in nature. For example, you can leverage the cool physics engines of the systems that entertainment developers use to build out environments that are engaging and that can help you teach what’s happening in physics in the digital world.

You can do the same things in social sciences, too, because there’s a lot of ways to make the experience engaging using digital engines. Using digital media to teach English or soft skills is absolutely a positive thing and you can do some of those things even in the design of your games. Some of the most important learning is independent of the subject matter. One of our games is actually a collaborative game where you sit next to someone and you solve the puzzle of the game while you’re talking, which happens naturally when kids are playing a multi-player game on a video game console. In using that same pattern of play in education, you can get kids to model the language of the discipline that they’re playing in and you can also build what educators refer to as skills for 21st century learning, which focus on communication and collaborating. We added a level builder to allow students to express their creativity and demonstrate their understanding of the content in an unconventional way.

Q: Can you tell us more about one of your recent educational games, perhaps Martha Madison? What kind of impact have you seen Martha Madison having on students?

Martha Madison is a side scrolling platformer that teaches middle school students about physics. It was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation. The original intent of Martha was to help close the gap for girls in the sciences because in middle school, we start to see kids thinking that they are bad at math and science. Then we see attrition from there which cascades into college classes and degrees. So, the idea was to create a game that engages them and gets them excited about science at a moment when they really need to make decisions about what classes they’re going to continue to take.

We had fabulous results in our initial research. Using inventories developed by Mary Flanagan at Dartmouth College, we were able to show an increase in STEM-affiliation across all sectors – urban, suburban, and rural – with young girls. And in doing that research with one of our partners, RIT, we stumbled across something really important. When we were doing our research with our low-income students, we discovered that they didn’t know the languages of science. So, while they were solving the physics problems at the same rate as their more affluent peers, they weren’t doing well on the pre-tests and post-tests. So, when we refactored Martha, we broadened its intent to include students learning the language of science, while still serving our primary mission of encouraging young girls to stay engaged.

So, it’s been a joy to go out into districts and playtest and pilot this. We actually just won a big industry award, the Student Choice Award, at I/ITSEC. They have a big serious game component and they let the Orlando schools test serious games for education. Martha won the Student Choice Award, which made us very happy.

Q: In addition to schools, you also work with the corporate sector to create more effective training experiences. Are more companies choosing interactive, game-based learning to train their workforce? 

First of all, the workforce is becoming more and more populated with millennials and Gen Xers who are all digital natives. So, corporate training is moving from being lecture-based, where you get a binder with materials and you sit with PowerPoints, to a more dynamic training environment. We see games being used in two ways: one, to help people master or maintain specific skills. In fields like health care, we can model environments in a much more effective way and create immersive, authentic experiences where you’re not just leading people to pick the right multiple-choice answer, instead you’re getting better insight into what they know.

The second thing we’re seeing is that employers are using games to help with soft skills. For example, games help with onboarding employees and getting them introduced into corporate culture, as well as teaching them to collaborate and communicate.

Q: How did you choose Rochester, New York, as your headquarters? Are there specific advantages this area provides to your work?

I grew up in Rochester, so it’s my hometown. But, it’s been an ideal place to grow a serious game company. Rochester is fortunate to have a number of great educational institutions. We have a wide array of subject matter experts to choose from. We also have RIT, which has one of the best game design programs in the country. So, we have a constant flow of young talent coming out of that program. We get to leverage the faculty as well and they’re also very engaged with the entertainment game space. The Eastman School of Music at the U of R also has this great music composition program for video games. We’re also fortunate to have the Strong National Museum of Play here, which has the world’s largest collection of electronic games. They have these robust archives as well, so when we’re looking at doing game design, we can walk two blocks to the National Museum of Play and look at the history of the art. The Strong is also going to have a fabulous new exhibit dedicated to women in games, focusing on the contributions of women in the development of games from the early days to present.

Our city is also very supportive of our efforts, last week we had a council member in our office playtesting games with kids, he is now totally on board.  So, we have a fabulous ecosystem for designing, producing, and supporting games here. And it’s a really good community that has always had a vital creative class and there’s a lot of local support for developing a stronger economic center around video games.

Q: Are there any community engagement projects that the company takes part in, such as partnerships with local schools or building a support system for local entrepreneurs?

We do a couple of different things. If you go to our website, you’ll see something called Game Changers. That’s a partnership that we’ve started to build out with public schools, charter schools and the public library system where we’re co-creating games with students. We will take our games that are in beta, test them and get feedback. At the same time, they’re getting exposure to developers, animators and getting to meet professionals that can be role models for them. That community partnership has been fabulous.

Q: Did you play video games growing up? What is your favorite video game of all time and why?

My first video game was actually punch cards for the Teaching Typewriter. The punch cards had word problems on them and when you typed in the right answers, the punch card would move through and you would get a ding. This was way before personal computers. So, I had stacks of punch cards because the reward of just getting the ding and getting to see the punch cards move through was awesome.

But, I was around at the very beginning of video games when people were just getting Atari systems and playing things like Space Eggs on the Apple II. My cousins got Blip one year for Christmas and I was completely jealous. I think my favorite video game of all time is Tetris because I can play it anywhere, anytime and it’s easy to pick up and put down. I enjoy longer form games, but as a working mom, I don’t really have as much time to play them as I would like to.

Q: Where do you see the future of games in the education space in the next ten years? Do you think more schools will adopt games as a tool for learning?

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center put out some great reports on the actual penetration of games in the classroom and it’s very high now. I think the make or break of games in the classrooms is going to be creating a sustainable economic ecosystem for them because there’s this push to have things provided for education to be very low cost or free. There’s a tension between that and creating meaningful video games that work and can be sustained in a really dynamic technology environment. The fact is that video games, if they’re well designed, can be a great asset in educational systems. The challenge is how we distribute them, market them, and fund them so that they can be sustained.

 Q: You are a successful woman entrepreneur. What advice would you give to women who want to start their own venture and be successful?

I think women are natural entrepreneurs. It’s important for the game community and for other market sectors to have more women leaders. Our voices are important at this point in time. As a woman entrepreneur, I have a lot of control over my own schedule that I might not have as an employee somewhere else. So, while I might work long hours – sometimes into the wee hours – when it’s important, I can also carve out time for my family and build that flexibility into my own schedule. That’s really important.

Being an entrepreneur is high-risk and you have to be really good at multi-tasking. Those are things that women are naturally good at. Women are also fabulous collaborators. I think creating a network of female entrepreneurs around you is important. There are some areas where we don’t get the amount of attention as our male counterparts get. It’s much harder for women to get venture capital funding and we certainly face other sorts of headwinds in the market, but unless we actually go out and start to create our own firms, we’re not going to overcome those barriers.



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