Educator Spotlight: Recreating Expeditions as Video Games

Michael Stanley drew out middle-school students’ curiosity about the world while they brainstormed about personal explorations. Students also investigated a real-world scientific expedition and created an educational video game as a way to share their research with a wider audience.

Michael Stanley is a middle school librarian and media teacher at Liberty Middle School in Aurora, Colorado. Photo by Amanda Arthur-Stanley

Could you share what your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone project entailed?

We began the project with what I call “mini-expeditions” into non-fiction texts. I use the word “expedition” as a metaphor for the research process; students are like explorers—determining their purpose, gathering their supplies, and setting off on a journey to see what they can learn. I try to help my students understand the difference between an expedition and a vacation; an expedition is a journey with the purpose of exploration and discovery.

We then discussed personal explorations, and I had students brainstorm topics they would like to explore, places they wish they could visit, and skills they would like to master. Students used this brainstorm as a springboard for researching a real-world scientific expedition, and ultimately they created video games depicting the expeditions.

Educators: Download full lesson plan here.

How did you come up with the idea for this project?

As a school librarian, I constantly look for ways to help students connect with the world of information around them. Tapping into students’ curiosity about the world is the perfect way to encourage students to explore different kinds of texts so they can grow as readers and thinkers.

Ultimately, I hoped that this lesson would empower my students to act on their curiosity. By legitimizing their personal interests about the world through discussion, research, and purposeful sharing, I wanted my students to feel more adventurous and entice them to use more of the resources at their disposal to explore their own budding interests and passions.

What inspired you to integrate building an educational game into your project?

I am personally interested in coding projects, and I knew a number of my students were interested in learning how to create digital games, so the decision to incorporate an educational game really grew from complementary interests. I believe that the best learning often takes place when we are playing around—that is, when we are taking risks and trying new things. Having students extend their learning by expressing themselves in a game was relevant and fun.

Students used the free program Scratch to code video games. Photo by Michael Stanley

Could you share an example of a video game that students created based on an expedition?

A few students selected National Geographic Explorer Will Steger as their research subject. They learned about his polar expeditions and his expertise on climate change. Students extended their learning by using their research as they programmed a video game using Scratch. In the game, the player maneuvered Will and his sled dogs past hazards such as melting glaciers to collect photographic evidence of climate change.

I also created a sample video game to share with students based on a National Geographic Blue Holes expedition.

Students drew plans representing the visual aspects of their video games. Photo by Michael Stanley

How did students surprise you during the course of this project?

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how brainstorming and discussing exploration prompted students to share about themselves and their hopes for the future. I heard interesting spontaneous conversations, such as a group of students who wanted hear about their classmate’s connection to Libya.

One student seemed stuck when it came to identifying one place outside of the country he wanted to visit. When I asked about his thoughts, he said he couldn’t think of any place he wanted to explore because other countries were dangerous. These interactions turned into unexpected teachable moments as other students and teachers offered counter-examples in a respectful and civil manner. In this way, the lesson also helped students process their feelings about current world events while they became aware of other perspectives.

Could you share a favorite book and/or quote that inspires your teaching?

One of my favorite teacher books is Frank Smith’s The Book of Learning and Forgetting. One of the central messages is the idea that real transformative learning takes place in communities of practice where students are apprenticed in real-world tasks rather than skill-and-drill instruction removed from deeper meaning.

One of my favorite quotes is from Harry Potter‘s Albus Dumbledore: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

As a teacher, I try to remind myself to make choices that push my comfort zone while being willing to learn new things and, more importantly, to try them with my students.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Interested in joining Michael as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at

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