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“How we might get kids as excited for educational games as they do with Fortnite and Pokemon” With Penny Bauder & Ashley Deese

We recently developed a line of freely available activities that are inspired by the makerspace movement. Smithsonian Science for Makerspaces is designed for students to engage with emerging technologies through hands-on learning such as 3D printing and computational thinking. These activities bridge formal science education and the makerspace movement by helping educators and teachers engage […]

We recently developed a line of freely available activities that are inspired by the makerspace movement. Smithsonian Science for Makerspaces is designed for students to engage with emerging technologies through hands-on learning such as 3D printing and computational thinking. These activities bridge formal science education and the makerspace movement by helping educators and teachers engage with digital and physical technologies within the context of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) by asking them to make something new. Our first series incorporated 3D printing and we recently released a series that uses cardboard and tape as a low-tech approach to teach computational thinking. We have an upcoming app that is compatible with cardboard headsets and offers a virtual reality experience that will bring users to the National Mall in Washington, DC to learn about the path of the sun as it moves through the sky in different seasons. We are also exploring ways to incorporate augmented reality in the classroom in a meaningful way.


As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the toy, game, and video game industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Deese. Ashley is the Manager of Digital Media at the Smithsonian Science Education Center, at the Smithsonian Institution, where she leads the digital media team throughout the production and distribution of Smithsonian STEM products such as game apps, interactives, and videos for children around the world. Deese has produced internationally acclaimed and bestselling game apps for the Smithsonian such as “BumperDucks,” “Disaster Detector,” and “Showbiz Safari.” Deese’s game app, “Morphy!,” received an honoree award by The Webby Awards in 2016. “Aquation: The Freshwater Access Game” was a 2018 nominee for The Webby Awards inaugural games category for Public Service & Activism. Deese was named to the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list for her work in games. Deese’s games have been played in over 100 countries and has topped the Top Charts on the Apple App Store worldwide.

Deese is a voting member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, a member of the Smithsonian Networks Review Committee for Smithsonian Channel, a Smithsonian unit editor for the Smithsonian Magazine Voices blog, member of the digital advisory board for the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, the former Smithsonian representative for the White House’s Computer Science for All initiative, and the co-chair for Smithsonian Gaming. She has helped fundraise for digital development and served as a co-principal investigator for several grants related to game development. She has presented her game apps around the Smithsonian, DC, and across the United States. She earned her BS in Biology from Methodist University and a MA in Interactive Media from Elon University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Ashley! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Iam currently the Manager of Digital Media at the Smithsonian Science Education Center, at the Smithsonian Institution, where I lead the digital media team throughout the production and marketing of Smithsonian educational science products for a global audience. Growing up, my mom would always buy me educational computer games and I would watch National Geographic or the Discovery Channel with my dad. I always had some form of educational media around me so I now have an affinity for it. I’m also naturally curious so digital media helps satisfy my need to explore and learn. However, I studied biology in undergrad with the hopes of becoming a medical doctor but that didn’t work out. After graduation, I decided to pursue a career in digital media and this is when I decided to get a masters degree in interactive media. I wanted to combine my love of science with media. Now I get to work full time in creating digital media science products that are used by people all over the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

What I love about my job is the stories that I get to hear from our audience. Kids have shared with me that something I created is their favorite game and they play it all of the time. Or the stories from parents saying how their kid has learned so much by playing a game or watching a video over and over. Or seeing little girls overjoyed when they see a female in a science and tech career and they realize that they can do it too. It is very humbling and it makes me realize that my work is very, very important in more ways than I could have ever imagined.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I wouldn’t be anywhere without my parents, Harold and Catherine. Their love for learning was passed down to me and I was able to pursue my passions with their support.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Education is at the core of the Smithsonian’s mission and our products bring real-world phenomena that are too large, too small, too far away, or too complex into the hands of children everywhere. I’m an advocate for developing educational products that are freely available and multiplatform in an effort to make a quality education more accessible to children across varying socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. The products we create are driven by real-world problems, integrate resources from the Smithsonian, grounded in research, and have proven to change educational achievement and outcomes for children. We recently started developing games that will teach science through a socioeconomic lens. In “Aquation: The Freshwater Access Game,” players learn that parts of the world struggle with access to freshwater and introduces them to various ways to combat this issue. In “Pick Your Plate! A Global Guide to Nutrition,” players learn about different food guides from around the world and must build healthy dishes with a limited amount of currency. “Pick Your Plate!” is aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). (The SDG’s are a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.”) I like to think that we are teaching kids that science is everywhere and it can be used to solve the world’s problems. Ideally, we are inspiring and empowering the next generation of scientists.

Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in toys or games that that you are working on?

We recently developed a line of freely available activities that are inspired by the makerspace movement. Smithsonian Science for Makerspaces is designed for students to engage with emerging technologies through hands-on learning such as 3D printing and computational thinking. These activities bridge formal science education and the makerspace movement by helping educators and teachers engage with digital and physical technologies within the context of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) by asking them to make something new. Our first series incorporated 3D printing and we recently released a series that uses cardboard and tape as a low-tech approach to teach computational thinking. We have an upcoming app that is compatible with cardboard headsets and offers a virtual reality experience that will bring users to the National Mall in Washington, DC to learn about the path of the sun as it moves through the sky in different seasons. We are also exploring ways to incorporate augmented reality in the classroom in a meaningful way.

How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?

I’m not sure if it will disrupt the status quo but I would like to see kids get as excited for educational games as they do with Fortnite and Pokemon.

You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?

The Smithsonian was established “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” while the Smithsonian Science Education Center’s mission is “transforming K-12 Education through Science in collaboration with communities across the globe.” As you can see, education is at the core of the Smithsonian’s mission and I believe that our games bring real-world phenomena that are too large, too small, too far away, or too complex into the hands of children everywhere. Our games are driven by real-world problems, integrate resources from the Smithsonian, grounded in research, and have proven to change educational achievement and outcomes for children. We recently started developing games that will teach science through a socioeconomic lens. In “Aquation: The Freshwater Access Game,” players learn that parts of the world struggle with access to freshwater and introduces them to various ways to combat this issue. In “Pick Your Plate: A Global Guide to Nutrition,” players learn about different food guides from around the world and must build healthy dishes with a limited amount of currency. I like to think that we are teaching kids that science is everywhere and it can be used to solve the world’s problems. Ideally, we are inspiring and empowering the next generation of scientists.

I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage toys or gamification to enhance education?

The term gamification can be used in two ways. The first way is by adopting the act of playing a video game into everyday use. The engagement levels and entertainment values of video gaming can motivate users to accomplish tasks that are normally viewed as boring, such as learning. Another definition of gamification is the act of using game elements to make non-games more enjoyable. I tend to use both definitions interchangeably. In the classroom, gamification can aid in cognitive development, aid in physical development, increase levels of engagement in the classroom, and aid in accessibility for all students in the classroom.

Game-based learning is another strategy that can be leveraged in the classroom. Game-based learning is the idea of using learning games to teach as opposed to traditional textbooks. Students tend to be more engaged while interacting with a video game that incorporates elements such as interactivity, voiceover, video, images, sound, etc. Video games can take students to outer space or explore the depths of the ocean in a way that can’t be achieved through traditional textbooks. Not only is it great for engagement, but learning games can also be a meaningful assessment tool for teachers during student evaluation.

I know that this question may be outside of your core expertise, but I’m sure you will be able to share some important insight. In your opinion, how is the US doing with regard to engaging young people, and particularly girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

This is an issue that we are working to tackle with our partners through our “Girls and Women in STEM” work. We have lessons, activities, and an upcoming eBook designed to be a STEM resource for girls (and boys). Based on research, our belief is that same-gender role models increases identification with STEM and sense of belonging, which in turn increases self-efficacy, motivation, and intent to pursue STEM careers. This inspired our upcoming eBook, “Stories of Women in STEM at the Smithsonian.” We want to tell stories of the amazing work that women are doing at the Smithsonian and the work of women that have a Smithsonian connection. We hope that this serves as inspiration for young girls everywhere.

How would you define a “successful” game or toy? Can you share an example of a game or toy that you hold up as an aspiration?

My mom introduced me to “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” as a kid and it ignited my passion for travel and learning about new cultures. By playing a computer game, I was exposed to new places that I otherwise wouldn’t have received growing up in rural North Carolina. Now I love to travel the world and hear stories from others so that I can authentically create inclusive experiences for our global audience. All from an educational game! I aspire to work on a project that has that level of impact for kids around the world.

What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create Successful Games or Toys” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Define learning outcomes/objective — Either aligned to educational standards or a single outcome that you want the user to achieve.
  2. Do market research — Chances are that the game may have been created before. See what others are doing and then improve upon it and give it your own spin.
  3. Prototype — Before diving into digital development, prototype your game using paper or PowerPoint.
  4. Test — Playtest your game with friends, family, and ideally your target demographic.
  5. Iterate — It is likely that you will not have your final game nailed down in your first design. Take user feedback and improve upon it until you have a final product you are happy with.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to see a movement in which Instagram fashion influencers are replaced with scientists and naturalists as influencers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein

I like to think that my curiosity is the driving force behind everything that I do. I’d like to use that curiosity to help make the world a better place by developing games for impact.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@AshleyDeese

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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