Catching Up with Inaugural STEM Challenge Winner Derek Lomas

June 2, 2016
Photo by Kris Krug

Photo by Kris Krug

When Derek Lomas learned that 50% of 8th grade students in the United States can’t put a series of fractions in order from least to greatest—a skill that’s generally taught to students in 4th and 5th grade—he knew that something needed to be done. “Fractions are often the mathematical sticking point for kids because it’s the area where math truly gets hard for the first time,” Derek explains. “Without a firm grasp of fractions, students have a hard time learning algebra and developing strong number sense.”

To combat this challenge, Derek and his partners Dixie Ching and Jeanine Sun developed Numbaland, a collection of four video games that equip children from kindergarten to 4th grade with skills that solidify their understanding of number concepts. Featuring games like Battleship Numberline and Angle Asteroids, Numbaland won the Collegiate and Impact Prize in the inaugural 2011 National STEM Video Game Challenge.

An early iteration of Battleship Numberline, one of the winning Numbaland games.

An early iteration of Battleship Numberline, one of the winning Numbaland games.

Getting Started with Game Design

Numbaland was far from Derek’s first foray into game design. In 2008 he co-founded Playpower.org, an educational software development nonprofit based in San Diego, California. Working with a team of over 100 volunteers from around the world, Playpower set out to create a low-cost computer that could provide an affordable connection to learning games in developing countries, funded by a Digital Media and Learning grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

The result of Playpower’s efforts? A suite of educational games compatible with a $12 8-bit computer that operates similar to classic Nintendo systems, equipped with a keyboard and mouse, and running graphics through a family’s existing television screen.

“Our purpose was to show that hardware was not the bottleneck [in developing countries],” Derek explains. The team found that while the technology might be older, they were ultimately able to make low-cost computers and software broadly accessible. “Now it’s a matter of different access instead of no access,” says Derek.

Capitalizing on New Momentum

Flash forward to December 2011: Following Numbaland’s National STEM Video Game Challenge win, Derek co-founded Playpower Labs, the next iteration of Playpower.org. “Winning gave us the impetus to scale with access to new connections and resources,” he explains.

Now with over 35 educational game designs under their belt, one of the crowning achievements of Playpower is Fraction Planet, an app based on educational competencies from the Common Core that won an app design competition with the NYC Department of Education in 2013.

With over one million downloads of their latest app Math Planet, Derek and the team at Playpower have a distinct advantage when it comes to researching efficacy—an immense and engaged sample size. “We’re able to automate experiments, test different elements of the game and curriculum rapidly, and ultimately, get kids into the ‘good’ experiment conditions more quickly,” he explains.

Playpower's app Math Planet was featured in the Apple App Store.

Playpower’s app Math Planet was featured in the Kids section of the Apple App Store.

Inspiring a Smarter Approach

“What’s exciting is using research to discover something new about motivation and learning,” says Derek. “We’ve found that the harder something is for kids, the more they fail, and the less time they want to spend doing it.” Instead, Playpower focuses their designs on increasing difficulty over time through effective leveling, maintaining the novelty and incentivizing game play with engaging design elements.

Now with a diverse collection of games to his name, Derek is focused on digging deeper into the way that design as a whole informs his game concepts. “When I think about game design, I also think about motivational design,” he explains. “I’m thinking about ways to make educational games more engaging and delightful.” He recommends that aspiring designers take a similar approach in thinking about the motivation behind gameplay, and pick up a copy of The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman for more inspiration.