Games Win Big in Education Grants Competition

Filament Games 2013

In Filament Games’ "Reach For The Sun," students grow a sunflower from a seed into a full plant by “doing” photosynthesis. (Image by Filament Games)

“I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create… educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up.” - President Obama, March 2011 

Today, the U.S. Department of Education announced the final winners of this year’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract awards—funds that are reserved for entrepreneurial small businesses using cutting-edge R&D to develop commercially viable technologies to solve tough problems.  And there’s something that may surprise you about the winning contracts: More than half—or 12 in all—are for games and game-related projects, more than in any previous year. That says a lot about the increasingly creative field of educational games, and the growing base of evidence indicating that games can be an important and effective component of our strategy to prepare a highly skilled 21st century American workforce.   

The SBIR program at the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the Department of Education’s research division, provides up to $1.05 million to small businesses for the R&D of commercially viable education technology products. The program holds an annual competition and awards funds in several phases: Phase I awards, up to $150,000 for 6 months, allow for the development of a prototype and research to demonstrate its functionality and feasibility; and Phase II awards, up to $900,000 for 2 years, are for full-scale development of the product, iterative research to refine it, and a pilot study to demonstrate its usability, feasibility, and promise. A small number of Fast Track awards are made each year for funds to cover work in both Phase I and Phase II.

This year’s prominent success of games-related proposals reflects three factors. First, the IES SBIR program has gained a reputation for recognizing and supporting—and so increasingly, attracting—bold innovators such as Filament Games (winner of the National STEM Video Game Challenge in 2011), Sokikom (winner of several industry awards and recent recipient of $1M in angel funding), and Triad Interactive Media (winner of a 2013 SIIA CODiE award). Second, educators are increasingly learning to use games to motivate students in new ways, creating increased demand for new ideas and products in this sector. Third, the recent meteoric rise in popularity of mobile devices has enabled game-playing anywhere and at any time, providing an expanded market of players interested in purchasing education titles.

This year’s SBIR games winners share several themes:

  • Most include an adaptive component that auto-adjusts the game difficulty to the competency level of the player.
  • Several use story-based narratives to engage students.
  •  Most include rewards and competition to drive game play.
  • Most include a teaching component that supports the implementation of the game as a supplement to or replacement for standard instructional practice.
  • Several include teacher dashboards, where formative assessment results are provided to the teacher in real-time to inform them of player status for further instruction and remediation.

The winning 2013 IES SBIR awards for games this year are:

Phase I

Phase II                                                               

Fast Track (Phase I & II)

Information about other awards can be found here.

Congratulations to all the winners and we can’t wait to see what’s coming next!

Mark DeLoura is Senior Advisor for Digital Media at OSTP

Edward Metz is a developmental psychologist and Director of the Institute of Education Sciences’ Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program.

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