Learning physics is more than a game
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 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:
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.