- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

The youngsters in the classroom at the Chinese Community Church have their eyes glued to computer screens, shouting excitedly about magical creatures, strange lands and … multiplication tables?

They are playing Pi’s Kingdom, an educational adventure game designed and developed by sisters Jessica and Jennifer Hsu, founders of D.C.-based Clairvoyant Technologies.

Jessica Hsu said she quit her job as an engineer at Rockville defense contractor BAE Systems so she could focus on developing the games. She makes less money now, but she believes this gives her a better chance to make a lasting impact.

“We feel like we can really change education as it is today,” she said. “Educational games have a lot to offer in terms of how it can engage the students. … Our goal, number one, is to improve the test scores of these students and to help the teachers.”

The game won second place in this year’s Startright Business Plan Competition, which Ms. Hsu said has given her business a boost with a $5,000 prize, a free answering service for six months and a lot of exposure.

Lynne Benzion, associate director of Rockville Economic Development Inc., the public-private partnership that ran the contest, said she was impressed by 26-year-old Jennifer and 29-year-old Jessica’s business plan. “They demonstrated extensive knowledge of the market,” she said.

While Wednesday’s session at the Chinatown church was the first formal test for the game, Clairvoyant Technologies already has partnerships with two D.C. elementary schools that will test the games as part of their curriculum this year.

Jessica knows there are other educational games out there, but she says their approach is different.

“A lot of times what people do is they put the education stuff in first, and then the games are not fun,” Ms. Hsu said. “Then there are some games where the math is too interspersed. We’re trying to be in the middle here. We’re trying to tie in the educational content, but make the games fun first.”

Ms. Hsu, a lifelong gamer, said she believes games can hold students’ attention better than traditional teaching methods because today’s children are “technology natives.” She said that since 97 percent of America’s elementary school children already play video games of some sort, it makes sense to use the medium to help them learn.

One of the developers of “Pi’s Kingdom,” designer and former teacher Annie Dickerson, agreed that video games can be an effective way for students to practice the concepts they learn in class.

“Look around,” she said. “There isn’t a single kid who is jumping-out-of-his-seat bored.”

The minigames teach children multiplication visually, such as the tilling game the students must play before they can get the magic fruit to bring back to the teacher.

Wendy Chen, 10, said she would much rather play “Pi’s Kingdom” than complete traditional homework assignments.

“This game is like an Internet game, and I feel like I’m really in the game, and I’m learning math,” Wendy said. “When you do this, you can learn and you’re also having fun at the same time.”

Ms. Hsu said educational games give students immediate feedback rather than making them wait a week for a homework assignment to be returned. Teachers can also get an instant assessment of what students are learning from their lessons by checking the data logged by the game.

In the game, students control on-screen characters on their first day of school and must interact with strange creatures and visit alternate worlds to help their teacher — all while developing math skills. The game’s story and fantasy elements make it appealing to children, Ms. Hsu said.

“They’re having fun trying to beat their friend’s score, but at the same time they’re drilling these concepts,” she said.

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