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!
Here is an excellent article by Joan Straumanis on learning. She talks about some myths of learning like misunderstandings of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and methods of learning shown to work yet are very easily implemented.
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.
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.
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.:
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.
I first heard of Bret Victor with his Kill Math talks. He is obsessed with nurturing ideas and unlocking creativity with tools that help the creator see what they are doing. This video I stumbled across is incredible. Jump to 3:30 if you are in a hurry.
I was introduced to this game at London’s Science Museum site. It reminds me of the also excellent game The Incredible Machine. It’s a puzzle game where you use various physical phenomena like electricity or heat to make things work.
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.
I just played these two games about a serious subject, sweatshops. Both games are simple 2D drag-and-drop games, relative inexpensive to produce (compared to a 3D game), and they want to teach a little bit about the evils of Sweatshops.
In Sweatshop the boss fired the old manager and forces you to be the new manager. He yells at and threatens you to make production quotas, hire kids who are paid less, and tells you to find “well endowed” workers because he wants to look at them. Yucky. The graphics are excellent and the gameplay is a tower-defense type game–you hire workers for a certain cost and deploy them along the assembly line.
In Sim Sweatshop, you are a line worker assembling shoes. You have to put each part in place. You are paid a paltry sum for a 12 hour days work. Sometimes when a big order comes in you have to work longer hours too. And if you don’t meet quota, your pay is docked. To make matters worse, you need to buy your own food and water otherwise you get tired and it’s hard to see what you are working on. The graphics are fair, definitely not as professional as Sweatshop.
The remarkable thing about these games is the difference in experiences. Sweatshop’s initial impression is much better than SimSweatshop–it looks more professional and more interesting of the two. But Sweatshop’s gameplay feels like the standard tower defense game. The evils of sweatshops are conveyed through the boss, threatening to fire you every minute, but is unconvincing because he is so sterotyped. SimSweatshop on the other hand feels like you are a slave laborer–when you get tired your vision of the shoes gets blurry. When you realize you have to buy your own water to drink, you feel indignant. When you are going as fast as you can but you didn’t meet quota, you feel hurt that you only got paid half for all that effort. The next day when you cannot afford to even drink some water and you have to try and work with blurry vision, you feel miserable. What a different experience.
SimSweatshop is a throughly convincing experience of being in a degrading work environment where all the odds are stacked against you. It was by far my favorite.
I’ve had the pleasure of working on Scoot-n-Doodle for the past few months and you must try it, it’s so much fun.
Scoot-n-doodle is video conferencing plus a drawing pad with games for families. Have you ever tried talking on the phone with your young nephew–a one minute conversation is about all you can hope for. It’s so hard to keep them in one place and there is not really much to talk about. With Scoot-n-doodle, you can play hangman, tag, or other games from your childhood. I’ll often play with my nephew for an hour at a stretch—what a difference between a painful 60 seconds of strained conversation to an hour of fun drawing crazy dragons or games of tic-tac-toe.
If you want to play with your relatives but they are far away, try Scoot-n-Doodle. It’s part of Google Hangouts so you’ll need a Google Plus account.
Having prototyped many games which turned out terribly boring, my favorite part of the article is where they recommend the game designer to find “those pleasures of the discipline that motivate its expert practitioners.” In other words, don’t try to add math problems onto an adventure game, instead find out what mathematicians or accountants love about their field and make a game about that.