A Student-Centric SimCity Story

1452109_547077678719029_1372675867_n“We’re going to play a computer game.” I said to my class. Gasps popcorned up all around my classroom. I’m pretty sure a bead of sweat was making it’s way down my forehead at that moment too, it’s hard to recall. I was sailing into uncharted waters, and I was not sure if the good ship “Gameification” was going to sink or swim.

Three years ago, I was a different teacher. I had lots of confidence in my students and my classroom routines, but I lacked confidence in trying ideas that were “road less traveled” type ideas. I had spent the summer before working with the game SimCity to build lesson plans that would allow students to play while meeting critical thinking, content standard, and learning goals. No small task, but the more I played the game, the more I discovered that this really had some legs to it. I decided this had to be attempted with my students.

The key was all about breaking down the building process, piece by piece. What a normal gamer would do in a few hours, we would stretch over a school year. Clicking and dropping buildings would need to be a critical thinking discussion, and reasoning would need to take place at each step. How would putting a school into the city help with other factors like crime and fire? Why is water such a critical necessity? What’s more important, adding a garbage dump or a sewage system? How is the ground pollution going to affect your citizens? You see the cause and effect lessons embedded.

To start, I take my class on a Google Maps tour of our own city. We discuss the way the city planners laid out the roads and then dive into a discussion of new vocabulary (residential, commercial, industrial) for land zoning. Students turn and talk to their two city council partners and discuss how they would like to layout their cities. Using rulers, grid paper, and lots of collaboration, students draw and then present their initial city designs.

The next lesson is all about different power plants (oil, wind, solar, nuclear, and coal). Students are given initial costs of each building and the ongoing hourly costs, along with power production and pollution statistics for each type of power plant in the game. They then build a data table and compare each power source. By the end of the 20 minute lesson block they would have a decision made, with reasons to present. The amount of critical thinking and collaboration is off the charts. Students feel ownership of the city and the learning. Their discussions matter to them.

The water table influences what goes where

The water table influences what goes where

We sort the different buildings, discuss what each one does, and then each team ranks their building priorities. For example, which of these starting buildings would you prioritize given your limited budget- A sewage facility, an elementary school, police department, or would you choose a library?  This is the point where each individual city begins to have it’s own identity.  Once the buildings begin to be placed, cause and effect takes over.  Every decision leads to even more outcomes that need attention.

Name the city. The game is paused and the team has to go write a research paper about someone/thing historical before they can name their city and move on.

Water running low? Let’s do a science lesson on aquifers and discover what is beneath our cities.

Population density provides students with detailed information

Population density provides students with detailed information

Kids engage in deep conversations about topics above their heads and they jump to reach. When a student comes to you and is desperately struggling for a word they don’t know, but can describe to you what they mean…well that’s a pretty easy way to teach vocabulary.

In the end, students spend about 20 minutes during their Daily 5 time (while I am working with a small reading group), twice a week, on their cities. The final project is a culmination of all of the small projects we had done along the way. Students use the in-game video recorder to fly through their cities, capturing key landmarks and points of pride. Once the videos are edited together, students write their own script and record a voiceover tour. In the examples below you will see the final results, including the slogan each city council created to capture the spirit of their city.

This amazing learning would not happen if I didn’t trust my students and myself. If I played it safe this game would never have been introduced. But because I took a risk, trusted my plans, and had clear goals for what I expected to happen I’ve captured lightning in a bottle. Magic happens when students are trusted and given the right tools and teaching.

Here are a few of the final projects that students created.




Michael Stephens is in his 9th year of teaching 4th grade.  His classroom has been described as a tech-mecca where students are encouraged to take risks and learn through failure.  His class web site, www.GeckoTeam.com is a great resource for a variety of educational links, as well as a technology blog to help fellow teachers.  He is actively working on creating a MakerSpace and is running a GoFundMe campaign to help purchase a 3D Printer and Littlebits kits.  Michael can be contacted on Twitter @teamgecko. Tweet at him for more information about the project.

About author View all posts

Michael Stephens

OnCUE Connect

Sign up and connect to CUE members, resources, and more at OnCUE -- delivered to your inbox each day!