Tychos — Hackable Simulations are Computational Models

Most modern science heavily uses computer models and simulations and education is responding nicely with a lot of instructors adding “computational modeling” to their courses. Our new app, Tychos, is for building computational models for science, e.g. computer simulations of orbiting planets, brownian motion, natural selection, that sort of thing. The part I love most about it is learning by doing.

Learn by doing — There are many science simulation apps already and they are very useful for students to play with and get some intuition about the phenomenon.  Now imagine how much the author of the simulation learned when writing it—she needed to understand the phenomenon in great detail in order to translate it into code. What if all students went through that process?  Of course a simulation app requires hundreds or thousands of lines of code with only a few of them actually related to the science.  Tychos removes much of this boiler-plate code so an average student can write a science simulation in a handful of lines!

Take a look at Tychos and tell me what you think. We need people’s feedback to make it a useful educational tool.

Dedicated Teachers, their top-5 complaints, and fantastic POGIL

As some of you know, I started on a new educational software project in September. I’ve identified high school and college science education as the area to work on and I’m interviewing teachers, students, and later probably parents, on what problems they encounter as they study science.  Many folks seem curious about what I find out, and especially the folks I’ve interviewed. I’m very grateful for the time folks have given me in the interviews and this letter is my attempt to give back a little.  So here’s what I’ve found out: teachers are incredibly dedicated, my top-5 list of problems teachers encounter, and a fantastic method of teaching called POGIL.

Impressed by Public Schools

So far I have interviewed 13 science teachers and 3 students and I’ve been very impressed with how teaching has changed since I was a kid. Most teachers seem to be moving away from lectures and doing more hands-on or project work. One teacher says “more lectures = less learning.” 10 years ago most people were skeptical of using games in school but now most teachers are for it.  They talk about games for specific skills like balancing chemistry equations or help on areas of math that a student might be missing.  Teachers in lower-income schools talk a lot about outside influences such as kids who can’t concentrate only to find out they didn’t eat anything last night or even haven’t been home for 3 days due to violence there.  But most of all I have been incredibly impressed by the amount of dedication of all the teachers I have talked to.  They work so hard for their students, caring so much even when the kids are closed to help, trying to get inside each student and contribute to their journey.  At the same time they have to struggle against formidable odds that I will go into next.  Talking to all you teachers has been truly inspiring.

Problems Teachers Identify

Here are the top five problems I’ve heard in reverse order, i.e. the last is the whopper.  These are all from the teacher’s perspective. I’ll talk about student’s thoughts later when I have heard from more of them.

(5) Teachers would welcome game-like exercises on each topic for their students to learn via play.

(4) Teachers think students have trouble seeing how all the pieces fit together in one course and across courses. E.g. students are taken aback when their physics course starts using a lot of math.

(3) It’s difficult to keep everybody working in sync. Everybody has a different natural pace. Each student needs help in different areas but I don’t have time to provide it.

(2) Teachers want deeper learning.  Less is more, but standardized test and pacing guides keep that from happening.

..and the top problem…

(1) “I just want my students to care.”  There is too much apathy among students.

Both (1) and (2) seem related to me—a result of our school system’s focus on improving performance through standardized testing.  As an engineer I’m a firm believer in testing to assure quality.  But I’ve been convinced it’s being applied incorrectly.  Although everybody wants deeper learning, the mandated curriculum doesn’t allow enough time to do that.  I asked two students how they prioritize between getting high scores on the tests vs. understanding the concepts deeply and they both prioritized scores over understanding.  I imagine when designing a state curriculum, everybody wants to add their favorite topics but it’s harder to prioritize topics away to provide time for more depth.  And when a student is forced to go quickly, never pausing when something catches their interest, always pushing forward when students still have an unsteady grasp, a student tends toward uncertainty, discomfort, and aversion to the topic.

It makes me think about W.E. Demming, which one parent pointed me to.  “Many in Japan credit Deming as the inspiration for…the Japanese post-war economic miracle…” (wikipedia) Demming writes about how to build better companies but his advice seems equally applicable to school systems:

  • Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
  • Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
  • Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.
  • [Avoid] Placing blame on workforces who are only responsible for 15% of mistakes where the system designed by management is responsible for 85% of the unintended consequences.



To end on a high note, one of the teachers I talked to turned me on to POGIL.  It’s an inquiry based method of teaching science and I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.  As far as I can tell, it’s main components are an efficient variation on learning through discovery, and deepening understanding through discussion and conflict.

Here is a TEDx talk on POGIL. The first minute of the video shows the audience experiencing it which I love—the speaker starts by using POGIL itself rather than a lecture about it.  The exciting stuff starts at 3:00 minutes in.

Here is an introduction to POGIL with more depth, and here are some example POGIL activities in computer science, chemistry, and others to see what it really looks like.

I’m still trying to get a grasp around POGIL, all it’s parts and how they work together for learning.  I encourage all the teachers on this list to read about it—it seems like the extension of what many of you have been working towards when you describe your evolution in teaching.  Please let me know what you think of it.


Round-up of Game Making Tools from Mark Chen

If you want to build a game but you or your students are not programmer’s check out Mark Chen round-up of Game Making Tools. Mark summarizes each tool so it’s fast to get the gist of what that tool offers. E.g.:

Name CraftStudio
URL http://craftstud.io/
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux
Target Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux, HTML5
Genres / types of games 3D games
Issues and Notes Both visual and Lua text scripting options. Building blocks. CraftStudio is relatively unique in that it allows for multiple users to manipulate the same project at the same time (like Google Docs). The fact that designers can work on the same project live, without having to worry about versioning, checking assets in and out, etc. makes this definitely one to watch, especially for group-based classroom use.


Electropocalypse at Greenbrae Maker Faire

Greenbrae Mini Maker FaireIf you live in Marin County CA, and want to try out Electropocalypse or meet its makers, come visit us at the Greenbrae Mini Maker Faire on September 13. We are currently trying to find the market for this game—is it kids or adults, people who like games or people who like electronics? At the faire we are going to ask people lots of questions to find out.

Electropocalypse at The Tech—Saturday April 26

250x250-open-makeThe Tech Museum in San Jose on Saturday April 26 is having an Open Make event on electricity and we’ll be showing our game there. It sounds like a fun day of electricity with a bunch of groups showing off their electrical projects, including the Young Makers who are preparing for the big Maker Faire in San Mateo next month.

Here is more information: http://www.thetech.org/partnership-programs-tech/open-make-tech

Some articles on puzzle design

I’m working on a game to teach basic electronics. It’s hard to come up with electronics puzzles instead of homework problems. I found these articles to be useful in understanding puzzles:

http://www.scottkim.com/thinkinggames/GDC00/bates.html — The art of puzzle design lies in creating an original set of problems and solutions that are appropriate to the story you are telling. Even so, puzzles fall into recognizable categories and it is important to know what they are and when you can use them. Here are some of the categories.

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/5901/evaluating_game_mechanics_for_depth.php?print=1 — Former Insomniac designer Mike Stout takes shares a useful rubric for judging the depth of play mechanics, including checks for redundant ones, in this in-depth design article, which contains examples from the Ratchet & Clank series.

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/09/20/untold-riches-an-analysis-of-portals-expressive-level-design/ — Hamish Todd’s writes, “Portal has the best-designed first-person puzzles I’ve ever seen. They’re surprising, focused, and concise. They are also designed very perceptively, and we can learn a lot from looking at this perceptiveness. Read on for an analysis of Portal’s level design, and some lessons about what learning from it can do to improve game design.”