Retro-style arcade games boost teens' interest in STEM

19th March 2014 at 17:00

Are you a child of Space Invaders, Donkey Kong Jr or Street Fighter? Depending on your vintage, one of these arcade classics may evoke fond memories of almost wrenching a joystick out of its socket and hammering on buttons with all the care of King Kong in a Waterford Crystal gift shop.

As fun as these games were, the chances are that you didn't learn anything (other than how to maximise your chances of getting repetitive strain injury). But now a new 21st-century arcade machine from a talented English teenager is merging the fun of its famous antecedents with a higher purpose of educating its players.

Rebecca Simpson, 19, has been named UK Young Engineer of the Year after taking a year and a half to build a coin-operated arcade machine that helps STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) students revise for their exams.

Jason Bradbury, who presents The Gadget Show on television’s Channel 5 and served as one of the competition's judges, said: “Her creation is one of the most original and clever ideas I’ve ever heard of. As a father of three, I can tell you that using computer games to focus young minds on STEM subjects is right on the money.”

Rebecca (pictured), who entered while at Dame Alice Owen’s School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, but now studies electronic and information engineering at Imperial College London, was inspired by her love of classic video games like Pac-Man and Blastoids.

One of her machine’s two games is a little like Space Invaders, except players have to answer maths questions. The other calls for a racing car to be fuelled up by answering design and technology questions. Ultimately, she would like her creation to go online and encourage students from around the world to add their own games.

Rebecca, who wants to work for Google or another company where “the focus is on making the office a fun environment and getting the best out of your workers”, has some advice on how to coax more girls into STEM subjects.

“Get them to try coding,” she says. “Sometimes girls are put off because classes in these subjects are mostly filled with boys, but you can code wherever and whenever you want.”

*Rebecca’s win was announced at The Big Bang UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair in Birmingham last week. She won £2,000 and an “experience prize”. 

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