Fourth-grader Kenny Beard stared intently at a computer screen, determined to push a penguin named JiJi along a slippery ice path. But to do so, he had to solve several math problems.
Kenny and his classmates at Polk Elementary in Central Unified School District are learning math concepts through a specially designed educational program known as Spacial Temporal Math -- ST Math.
Using computer games as math-teaching tools has been heartily embraced at Central Unified, which mandated twice-weekly instruction for all elementary students five years ago.
"Our kids think they get to play video games, when in fact they're doing their math," Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg said. "It's like an educational Mario Bros."
Making math fun is paying off. Central's chief academic officer, Laurel Ashlock, said the percentage of students scoring at proficient or advanced levels in the mathematics portion of the California Standards Test rose from 49% when the program was implemented in 2007 to 69% in 2013.
Kenny's teacher, Kristen Klein, said the program has multiple benefits. Students can get individualized instruction and learn at their own pace, which they can't do in a regular class. The best Klein can do in a classroom is arrange students into small groups and try to help a group for a few minutes, then move on to the next group.
The gaming program helps students learn to visualize the value of something before being introduced to math concepts, Klein said. For example, they can see that four of something and five of something else make a total of nine things, and then the program introduces addition and subtraction signs and traditional math formulas. This helps students understand math outside of the classroom.
And because students have to figure out each puzzle on their own, they are learning to problem-solve -- which Klein said is one of the most important things taught in elementary school.
And ST Math -- which doesn't contain a single word -- can help bridge language barriers, Berg said. "We have over 60 languages in Central Unified, and we struggle to offer even a basic curriculum," he said. "ST Math is mathematics without language."
The program was designed by MIND Research Institute, an independent nonprofit, as a fully-visual math education program.
When Klein's class met last month at the school's computer lab for an ST Math session, the room was almost disturbingly silent. Around 40 children sat with faces aglow as they worked furiously to guide the penguin protagonist JiJi across a series of levels. JiJi encounters obstacles that can only be navigated through the successful completion of a math problem.
Sapphire Tylor was busy assigning the correct number of boots to an animal with around 40 legs. She said that being able to see the boots and legs helps her understand the problem more than regular numbers would.
But not every student was sold on ST Math. Carson Harris took a break from multiplying fractions to say that she preferred learning from a textbook. Carson said ST Math is so easy that she sometimes rushes through problems and makes silly mistakes.
Once students successfully navigate JiJi to the end of a maze, they must pass a traditional math quiz to advance to the next unit. Students who finish their level move on to bonus levels that offer more challenging problems.
Keith Devlin, executive director of Stanford University's Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute and author of "Mathematics Education for a New Era: Video Games as a Medium for Learning," said that an important factor in using video games to teach math is the game itself.
"Frankly, the vast majority of math-learning video games are very poorly designed," he said. "As a rule of thumb, if any part of any screen you see in a math video game looks anything like a page from a math textbook, it's probably not a good math learning game. ST Math is one of the good ones."
Devlin said that he was surprised more schools don't use a video game math program. He pointed out a study conducted by WestEd, an independent nonprofit educational research group, that surveyed second through fifth students from 46 Los Angeles schools.
Students who used ST Math for the 2010-11 school year scored 3% to 8% higher, depending on grade level, than those who did not.
Central Unified is pleased enough with the program to expand it. Starting last year, students were able to play ST Math on home computers. However, many don't have regular computer access outside of school.
So this fall, the district is distributing Asus tablet computers equipped with Wi-Fi cards to each of its 15,500 students.
Ashlock and Berg hope that 24-hour access to ST Math will improve test scores even more.