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MARS Game Closed

Three photo panels: In-game screen capture of rover's first mission, the real-life Opportunity Rover on Mars, and a screen capture of the Mars Game starting screen

A digital game designed to teach mathematics, along with programming knowledge and skills, as part of a meaningful learning activity that produces statistically significant improvements in learner outcomes.

The Challenge

Advancements in gaming software hold great potential for integration into education and training programs. However, best practices are needed for fully harnessing the motivational mechanisms inherent in game play, along with the validation of game play approaches to determine the appropriate application and scaling of these methods for optimized learning.

The Solution

Game software, a content creation tool, and an effectiveness evaluation report focused on engaging the next generation of learners in activities that use game play to enhance thinking skills.

About the Project

The focus of this project was to evaluate the effectiveness of game-based learning for improving outcomes in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education, including the application to complex task training. A prototype game was developed for learning STEM fundamentals in the areas of programming and mathematics. The game’s storyline focused on students in the ninth and tenth grades assisting animated rovers to explore and survive on Mars by solving math problems. In addition to the game, a methodology was developed to evaluate the effectiveness of using the engaging aspects of game play to impart knowledge and skills in STEM.

The project was undertaken in two phases:

  • Phase One: This multifaceted phase included the design and development of an initial prototype of the game, design of the evaluation methodology, identification of the knowledge and skills development to be integrated into the game, and an in-depth pilot study to assess the impact of the game prototype on players’ engagement and learning.

  • Phase Two: This phase focused on creating a final game prototype that included a mix of programming and mathematics content, along with an evaluation to assess the effectiveness of true game-based learning and player engagement, leveraging the prototype game and the methodology designed in Phase One.

The final report of this project focused on whether the Mars Game was engaging and effective. It was evaluated as part of an afterschool program and played by students in pairs. The treatment group for the study used the Mars game and the control group used a well-established online mathematics supplemental instructional tool. Structured pair collaboration was integrated into the study design, and treatment and control conditions were created in which students were assigned randomly into pairs that played the game on either two computers (independent sessions) or one computer with one person driving.

The Mars Game had more of an impact for the treatment group over control group on engagement with the treatment group showing statistically significant improvements in learning outcomes. The gains in achievement were driven largely through the increase in programming post-test scores compared to a control group baseline. The study findings demonstrated that the Mars Game worked similarly well in an afterschool setting with a highly diverse student population in a high-poverty school. In addition, boys and girls learned equally by using the Mars game and were equally engaged.

Observations of the study worth noting were that ninth grade students, who were the main focus of this study, learned significantly more than students in the higher grades, and the Mars Game intervention had the greatest success with students who were new to the content being taught. These findings provide some evidence that games can be used as a primer to introduce new content – perhaps because of the confidence that some students gain as a result of the introduction of concepts and skills in a less threatening and more engaging way. The study demonstrated that well-designed and well-integrated serious games, which strike a critical balance between entertainment and learning, have the ability to engage and increase the knowledge and skills of students in STEM subjects.

Project Details

Period of Performance



StandardsWork, Inc.
Lockheed Martin