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Learning physics is more than a game

October 30, 2011

A while ago, I discovered the great physics game Super Ultimate Graphing Challenge. When I saw this, I was hooked, and thought it would be a great way for my kids to practice their understanding of kinematics. So I decided to have students spend a class period playing this game. I told students we’d be working to write a strategy guide for the game on google docs.

Students really loved the game, and within about 40 minutes, most had managed to solve even the most difficult levels on world 3. Our progress on the strategy guide was not as great. Part of this was due the the annoying nature of trying to take screenshots in Ubuntu, or the fact that google docs still doesn’t play nicely with inserting pictures all the time. But if you look closely at the descriptions there, you’ll see that students aren’t doing much more than recording the winning values for each world—they aren’t able to interpret accelerations of 1 \frac{\textrm{m}}{\textrm{s}^2} even in broader terms, as speeding up or slowing down, and don’t describe velocity as moving to the right or the left. So it isn’t too surprising that even after beating every world on Super Ultimate Graphing Challenge, a number of students struggled with this question the following day:

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After this, we had a discussion of how students could do so well on SUGC, and struggle with this seemingly simpler problem. Simple, most said, they approached SUGC as a game, and solved levels with trail and error mostly, and so they weren’t always paying attention to the details or deeper meaning of the game. And this in a nutshell, is why I’m a bit cautious that gaming will become a huge part of education. Sure, it’s fun, and greatly motivating, but it takes a lot of careful design (on both the game designer’s and teacher’s part) to make a game a deep learning experience—it’s far to easy just to turn off one’s brain and simply try every combination at almost random until you find the solution. This really isn’t too surprising, since I can remember playing Green Globs and Oregon Trail for hours on end, and yet wasn’t until significantly later than I really developed a understanding of linearity and nor did I learn why pioneers would want to go Oregon.

I blame myself for this for not giving the students enough guidance on this assignment. I this SUGC is awesome, and if I’d taken a bit more time to warn students not to simply try to “beat” the levels but instead to really master the physics (and worked out the kinks of building the strategy guide) I think this could have been a much more productive learning experience.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2011 12:54 am

    Much like KA videos, the value of games are often lost in having someone else make them for you. I wonder what the platform would look like that would allow students to design their own levels as challenges for others, while requiring the designer to think deeply about the underlying physics. That said, the depth of kinematics isn’t (deep, that is.) Perhaps a combination of gaming and post-game analysis…hmmmm.

  2. November 1, 2011 12:44 pm

    BTW awesome blog, I’m glad I subscribed.

    Yeah I think games might be more useful in the classroom when they offer a set of situations students want to know more about. Similar to the Angry Birds analysis.

    There is something to be said though for levels and gameplay which are designed precisely to bring situations which are relevant to a physics classroom. Shameless plug to a game I finished this year: http://www.gameforscience.ca/physica/demo/. The space levels (a few levels in) are designed to raise discussions about impulsions, the fact that the last force to influence an object does _not_ entirely determine it’s trajectory, and vector addition. They seemed to work rather well in classrooms here.

    Theron Cross brings a good point about teachers or students designing their own levels. I think this might be a worthwhile goal for games in general, and I might consider doing it myself on Mecanika.

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