Authentic Games & PBL: March 2009 Archives

Formulas as "Rewards" in Thermodynamics

The ESL game I encountered two weeks ago at a conference has got me thinking. Can we use the simple "beat the system" technique for something besides homework? The engineering course I'm developing includes (not surprisingly) a lot of formulas. Pages and pages of them in fact.

As an instructional designer attempting to think like a student, I kept wondering - what are they all for? It wasn't until I started working through some sample problems in the course that I began to understand their function (and began to realize which ones were actually time saving tricks).

If you're given a list of formulas, it's really very overwhelming. They are essentially pieces of random text you have to memorize, with weird symbols at that. Even though this class is designed for engineers, it has to still be a little confusing to wonder which formulas are the most important and when to use them.

But what if the formulas were presented sequentially as "rewards" for successful problem solving at the early level? First you're asked to solve problems (review perhaps) based on math you already know, but as you are required to solve more different or more complex problems, you might be given new formulas to unlock.

An Arithmetic Scenario

I thought I would write an arithmetic scenario to capture what I mean. Suppose you have learned to add and you solve a few addition problems like "What is the cost of one apple plus one orange plus two grapes." At some point a student might encounter a problem like "What is the cost of 6 apples" which is actually more quickly solved by multiplication.

Maybe at this point, the game could whisper "Hey kid, want a secret tool called multiplication?" This would open a mini lesson on multiplication with a secret reference source called a...multiplication table. Would this turn a multiplication table from a torture device to a secret weapon? Maybe, if the right real-world scenario were given.

Moving On

Math in particular seems like a field in which "gaming levels" really apply. For instance, you need addition to do multiplication which leads to exponentiation then logarithms (not to mention basic algebra). Math is taught in a sequence because skills often build on each other (although it can be hard to see the payoff in high school).

I think there are K-12 math activities like this, but can we extend this to high school and college? I've seen "capstone" activities (e.g. design a survey in statistics) where you put what you learn into practice, but it still seems like we present math as an abstract tool you will use at some later date.

The statistics / romance manga is moving in the right direction in terms of adding a plot line, but I'm wondering if a game element can add more of a reward system to with the real world context. I suspect the original mathematicians thought the current formulas were a gift in comparison to the "old way." Can we share that same "gift" with our students?

Post Script - Mar 26, 2009

I just read post on the Kapp Notes blog about using a "survival" game to explore engineering formulas. It'll be interesting to see how it works out.

CALICO 2009 Conference Report

Last week, I attended the CALICO conference on technology use for foreign language teaching. Since foreign languages involve communication skills, it's always a good conference to see communication tools in action as well as other developments such as gaming.

ESL Homework "Game"

There was only one game element in this English as a Foreign Language class (taught in Thailand), but it really changed the dynamics of doing homework. The students were assigned the usual reading & grammar exercises, but with the following conditions.

* Students earned "money" for completing exercises.
* The money could be used to open up more exercises and gain more money
* Students start at \$0, but can continue to earn higher amounts of money to open more advanced exercises. The most "expensive" was \$1400.

This simple device turned homework into a "beat the system" competition in which students were asking instructors to grade assignments more quickly so they could earn more money (reminds me of Mafia Wars). Students could see each other scores, but only the top 1/2 liked that feature. The presenter said he might disable scores, but I wonder if it should be a top 5 or top 10 list (like the old arcade games).

Very interesting psychology, and it might be easy to program.

Other CMC

As always, CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) was a major topic with presentations on Twitter, Second Life, blogs, RSS and wikis. Presentations were mixed, but one blog presentation was able to document that using blogs with a second language pen-pal was as effective as e-mail (if not more so) in positively changing student attitudes towards a foreign culture.

Neverwinter Nights

The best demo was probably Neverwinter Nights, a system where you can create custom "quest" modules. The instructor made a Neverwinter Nights module with a mystery. The wizard has to go through a village (where everyone speaks in a different language) and determine if a witch has cursed the town. The answer was that it was her chickens who caught the bird flu (and later stolen) that was the problem (interesting plot twist). It also showed the use of both dialogues and "realia" (maps and signs in the target language). The speaker also noted that you can set traps to destroy wizards who refuse to help the town.

Then of course we saw her insert an attack grizzly bear into the module and eat a character. Totally realistic.

Tech Room Design

We got to see some of the computer lab & tech classroom layouts at ASU. First there were lots of electrical outlets for our laptops, many built right into the desk. Clearly the school had a lot of money available in the recent past, and it seems to have been well spent.

But it seems like the designers are thinking about facilitating collaboration. Many labs grouped computers in groups of 3-4 at a round table. It would be pretty easy to swing around to one screen or compare screens. The newer flatscreens also make it much easier to move monitors around, and some were set on special arms (so you could lower the monitors for a compelling lecture).

Another room that was interesting was my seminar room in the Cronkite School of Journalism (yes that would be Walter Cronkite). It had the Macs all along the wall, but a central table in the middle. I think the idea was to do a mini-lecture than have people work on their own machine (maybe research a story). Interesting idea, but awkward for a hands on training session because the students in the back would be have to face me or their monitor. Fortunately, the class was small enough that everyone was on the side and could face both me and the monitor.

I have been an instructional designer at Penn State since 2000.

See my List of Current Projects for more details.