More than 10,000 Clark County students are using ST Math this year.

For all the talk about ways to raise test scores in Las Vegas, a promising solution, educators say, might lie in one of the most criticized of youth activities: computer games.

In an era when chalkboards are being replaced by interactive whiteboards and textbooks by iPad tablets, some educators see educational computer games pioneering the next wave in the digitization of the classroom.

The Clark County School District on Feb. 7 released the positive preliminary results from a five-year pilot initiative that brought “ST Math” software to seven of the valley’s lowest-performing elementary schools: Bonner, Cortez, Decker, Diaz, McCall, Sewell, and Ward. The pilot program has grown since its inception in 2009 to 32 schools, with more than 10,000 participating students this year.

Developed in 1998 by MIND Research Institute, a California-based nonprofit education group, ST Math—a 2012 Readers’ Choice Award winner from eSchool News—teaches abstract math concepts through video game-like instruction. The math software is geared toward elementary students and remedial middle school students, who guide a virtual penguin named JiJi through a series of increasingly more difficult levels and learn math concepts as they go.

Instead of plastic cubes illustrating ones, tens, and hundreds, flashy animations are used to illustrate place order and fractions. Instead of completing a quiz at the end of a textbook chapter, ST Math students must demonstrate 100-percent mastery of concepts before they can move up to the next level.

For more on math instruction, see:

Online program will help guide Okla. students through Algebra I

Wolfram Alpha launches free portal with tools for math instruction

Dallas ISD to expand computer-based math program

Experts outline challenges facing math instruction

eSN Special Report: The Interactive Math Classroom

Plenty of educational software has been developed for students over the decades, but many programs have focused on textbook-style lesson plans complemented by game-like practice problems, said Andrew Coulson, MIND Research’s president of education.

“This isn’t a textbook on a computer,” he said of the ST Math software. “To get transformational changes in learning outcomes, you need a different learning environment.”

That different learning environment—a computer lab full of students silently playing educational games—has translated to gains in student achievement, according to initial results from the pilot program.