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In 2012, Cooper Kelley of Cambridge, Mass., won with his game, ‘Mechanical Dragon’ / Courtesy of National Stem Video Game Challenge
In 2012, Cooper Kelley of Cambridge, Mass., won with his game, ‘Mechanical Dragon’ / Courtesy of National Stem Video Game Challenge

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A high-profile bid to encourage kids to think scientifically and cultivate a love for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or so-called STEM subjects, has found an unusual means to that end: video games.

Announced in 2010 by President Obama as part of his “Educate to Innovate” initiative, the National STEM Video Game Challenge has introduced thousands of middle- and high-schoolers to game design over the past three years— this year alone, more than 5,000 students from 40 states enrolled. It’ll soon see its first games debut on Apple’s App store.

Research suggests that the rigorous demands of creating a digital game from the ground up pushes kids to learn key math and engineering skills — and teaches them how to think like designers. “We know that (kids) enjoy and have their hands on technology every day,” says Susan Moore of the AMD Foundation, the philanthropic arm of computer chip designer AMD. “Many of them are passionate about gaming.”

A few advocates also say it encourages girls and minority students, who take up technical subjects at lower rates, to try them out.

“We’re trying to change the equation a little bit,” says Michael Levine, director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a non-profit research organization based at Sesame Workshop in New York City. “Media have often been viewed as things that ‘happen’ to kids. This really is about participation and making things your own.”

One of this year’s winners, Etiquette Anarchy, a retro platformer, is expected to appear this summer on both the Apple and Android app stores. It was created by two designers from Durham, N.C.

Greg Toppo is USA TODAY's national K-12 education writer (@gtoppo).

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