People only see what they are prepared to see.
  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As illogical as it sounds, I sometimes think Emerson would have embraced gaming. Maybe not as a participant, because he would have been too busy studying its value as a platform to free the mind from the tyranny of societal expectations.  He might have cited, as a case in point, a group of at-risk high schoolers in Austin, Texas who are learning how to solve big problems through blending their love of computer games with cognitive computing tools and design thinking.

David Conover guides a most interesting class in computer game design at John B. Connally High School.  When you walk in and see an ocean of desktop computers around the room with the popular Minecraft game running on the screens, it’s not much of a leap to assume that these kids are on a free-time break during the school day. But that isn’t what is going on. Conover’s class is getting all kinds of attention because it is swimming against tradition and unleashing innovation in students who society labels as “at-risk.” It’s evident in the passion with which the students describe their work, in their expressions, and in the conversations that are free-flowing around the room. David Conover’s face says a lot, too. Even before he speaks, you can see the excitement in his eyes. He sees opportunity where some others see only distraction and a waste of time, which might be better spent on “traditional” learning.

But one might say traditions are evolving without the permission of those traditionally in control. It is clear that these young people in Conover’s class are impelled to investigate, imagine, and create when they could just as easily be sleepwalking through the class or skipping it entirely. A summer school project to design a solution around infectious diseases led to a discussion between Conover and IBM Serious Games Lead, Phaedra Boinodiris, on how to tap into IBM’s Watson APIs for cognitive features in the solution. IBM’s cloud-based development platform, Bluemix, was the answer; and together with Lego Mindstorm robotics and Minecraft, Conover’s students had a powerful starting toolset with which to create. They strategized, designed, coded, sketched, and teamworked their way to a game simulation of battling tuberculosis in a human body where students maneuver nanobots with a Lego Mindstorm robotic arm. When the nanobots encounter an unknown cell cluster, they use Watson to identify the mass and corrective actions.

“This program has inspired my students and given them confidence. They have learned so much in a short time span … And to learn about cognitive computing via IBM, it opens up a universe of possibilities,” says Conover. Jim Spohrer, Director of IBM’s Academic Initiative, chimes in. “Games are a great way to encourage kids into STEM and certainly designing and developing games are very popular means to teach kids how to code. Additionally, with this recipe, we are introducing cognitive computing to kids at a very early age in a way that is easily realized.”

IBM has documented the entire experience of hosting an instance of Minecraft and integrating it with its Watson services. There’s an excellent four-part tutorial series on developerWorks where you can learn how to use Docker, Eclipse, and Bluemix to develop, extend, and host your own Minecraft servers.

I interviewed David Conover and Phaedra Boinodiris at IBM InterConnect and we talked at length about the Medical Minecraft project as well as broader implications for the application of serious games and game design to learning.

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