Experiments in Creative Approaches to Science Education

Experiments in Creative Approaches to Science Education,

by Mika Munakata and Ashwin Vaidya

By Dr. Mika Munakata, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Montclair State University
and Dr. Ashwin Vaidya, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Montclair State University

“Newton’s second law of motion states…”

In reconsidering the effectiveness of this typical script in any beginning physics course, it strikes us that while the standard method of conveying scientific information may work for the scientifically gifted and motivated student, it leaves behind the majority of the already scientifically alienated. Presenting a discipline such as physics as something external to oneself is therefore akin to alienating oneself from nature. Our understanding and description of nature is intricately tied to our experiences and sensations of the world around us; the Descartian approach of reducing nature to a set of mental rules, while powerful, is insufficient as a pedagogical tool. Along with a recounting of the historical reconstruction of scientific laws, students would benefit from (re)creating science. The rest of this article describes some of our experiments along these lines.

Students’ perception of creativity and science

Not so long ago, we administered a survey to over 200 MSU undergraduate and master’s science and mathematics students (Munakata and Vaidya, 2012). The aim of the survey was to assess students’ perceptions of the role of creativity in the sciences. The questionnaire, using a Likert- scale measurement from 1 to 5, asked students to indicate the degree to which various disciplines encouraged creativity.

Figure 1: Creativity ratings for different disciplines by CSAM students

Figure 1: Creativity ratings for different disciplines by CSAM students

It first asked students to describe the most creative activity they have been engaged in and to compare various disciplines, events and skills against their standard of creativity. Our data (Figure 1) revealed that even among science and mathematics students, arts-related disciplines were deemed to be more creative than sciences. Further, among the science disciplines, those that were more applied (medicine, engineering, physics) were rated as being more creative than the theory-based disciplines. The somewhat favorable ratings received by these scientific disciplines may not be random or coincidental; several of the students taking the survey were aspiring medical students and enrolled in a physics course taught by one of the authors . These results were also confirmed by other sections of the survey that asked students to describe the most creative activity they have engaged in. The results clearly illustrate the perception that creativity does not play a role in scientific and mathematical endeavors.

Though the results of this survey are not surprising, they are nevertheless disturbing to the science educator and pose a challenge for those of us who encourage our students to be innovative and try to equip them with the tools necessary towards this accomplishment. If we strive to engage students in science in the same way that a scientist approaches it—that is, creatively— it is imperative that we expose students to opportunities to engage in the creative process early on during their education. This is not so easy. Unfortunately, creativity and imagination are seldom emphasized in STEM learning (NRC, 2005) with rote and dry instructional practices often leading to students dropping out of STEM fields (Goldberg, 2008). By and large, students, especially in introductory courses, are taught by lecture and their laboratory experiments are usually predetermined. This may be the case in other disciplines as well.

Some institutions have made a deliberate attempt at revamping their curricula; traditional lecture-style teaching has been replaced by inquiry-based teaching, often encouraging students to fully engage in the scientific process . Others have proposed refocusing introductory science courses to reflect two aims: promote conceptual understanding and showcase the process of scientific inquiry (Meinwald & Hildebrand, 2011). These aims can be achieved by making courses student-centered and encouraging exploration and dialogue (see DeHaan (11)). Yet another way we propose is to engage STEM students in activities that merge science with creativity.

The Art of Science experiments

The Art of Science Project: We recently initiated an experiment in our classroom with the help of a grant from the American Physical Society. The project, which began in the fall of 2012, involves undergraduate physics and arts students in the exploration and development of a hand crank camera and in the subsequent production of sustainability-themed short movies . This innovative activity, or performance, will capitalize on the public’s passion for movies. The moving image occupies an increasingly demanding place in contemporary life.

Figure 2: Students working on a simple hand crank mechanism

Figure 2: Students working on a simple hand crank mechanism

Figure 2: Students working on a simple hand crank mechanism

The amount of energy spent on both the production and consumption of media nowadays is enormous; cinema itself, however, was born of modest mechanical means. Just over a century ago, hand- cranked cameras and bioscopes harnessed human energy to present the visual illusions that still hold our attentions today. This project is a collaboration between the disciplines of physics and art at MSU and is being conducted with the collaboration of faculty and artists from across and outside the campus with the hope of bringing the playful side of science to the forefront of the student consciousness. The project is being conducted in three distinct phases:

  • Development of new technology: In the fall of 2012, physics students from an upper- level course worked together to investigate the mechanics of a working hand-crank video camera as a special project in MSU’s “Classical Mechanics” (Physics 210). The exercise involved discussions about energy generation, the conversion of mechanical to electrical energy and sustainable energy practices . In the laboratory, we took apart hand-crank units, analyzed their parts and worked on putting together one of our own (see figure 2).
  • The second part of the technical project, which is currently underway with the help of students from the physics club, involves the development of a bicycle-powered generator. Power generated by operating the bicycles will be stored in the generator for later use in projecting. With the assistance of a visiting artist, Anuj Vaidya, students from MSU’s art department will soon begin to work with the physics students to create a series of short videos that explore issues of ecology and sustainability. They will use the hand-crank cameras to record images for their work. In addition to these images, students will be able to use recycled sounds and images to complete their short pieces.
  • The culminating event for the Art of Making Science project will be an exhibition and workshop held on the campus and open to the public. The physics and art students will present their product (both the machinery and the movie) to students and faculty during a special presentation at the 4th Annual University Teaching and Learning Showcase event, sponsored by the Research Academy.
Photo credit Anthony DeStefano, 2012.

Photo credit Anthony DeStefano, 2012.

The RAUL Showcase will also feature the Physics and Art exhibition which we initiated as an experiment in informal education to have students see the ubiquity and beauty of science. The exhibition showcases students’ photographs on any theme but with an aesthetic eye.

Students from CSAM are asked to submit photographs and to identify and elaborate on the science behind the art . These are mounted on posters and showcased during the exhibition. In all, more than 100 photographs have been submitted to date. Each year, a group of faculty from CSAM and CART award prizes to three student photographers.

The idea behind the events of the day are twofold: the art exhibition which is student- oriented gives the students a chance to participate in an art-science creation and get the audience in the right frame of mind to discuss the deep connections between art and science, and to reveal the sciences as a very creative enterprise. In the true sense of creativity, these events provide the opportunity for students to shift their paradigms about the nature of science learning. More often than not, we found the students pleasantly surprised to find physics hidden in the pictures that they took.

Photo credit Ashley LaRose, 2012.

Photo credit Ashley LaRose, 2012.

Reactions to these events:

We are in the process of assessing the impact of these events on students’ perceptions of the role of creativity in the sciences. Our hope is to distinguish the effective elements of these types of activities to share with STEM colleagues.

Conversations and the general public mood during the physics and art event clearly indicated excitement over the photographs and appreciation for the theme of the day.

Students in the upper level physics class were asked for reflections on their experiences with the Art of Making Science project and their classroom experience. Students recognized that the structure of the course was different from the typical day-long science laboratory exercises. They commented that the ongoing nature of the project provided incentive to prepare between class meetings and also stated that as opposed to the question-and-answer structure that is common in other classes, this class was open-ended and allowed for the student to ask their own questions and to try to formulate answers to them. One student saw this as good preparation for science after graduation, when textbooks won’t be available to provide answers.

Students also enjoyed the teamwork aspect of the project . They learned how to work on their own piece of the project while keeping the big picture of the group project in mind. Teamwork allowed them to combine their knowledge and to share ideas . For example, some in the group were “better with their hands” while others had “deeper theoretical knowledge .” Although some alluded to different starting points within the group, groups were able to find their rhythm and learn to communicate efficiently and effectively. Students enjoyed that they got to know each other well due to the focused time they spent outside of class.

The importance of such experiments and informal events cannot be underestimated. They can be extremely beneficial in conveying essential ideas which might be difficult in the traditional classroom due to pressures associated with grades. Additionally, even the elementary mathematical treatments of topics in physics is seen by many students as being very burdensome due to previously instilled fears about mathematics and science. Our experiments have proved to be a revelation to students and faculty alike; it has allowed us to provide a forum where talking about science and creating science are both possible and equally valued . It has allowed students to see that science and in fact, even art, are not created in isolation; there is a strong tie between them that often goes unnoticed . In becoming comfortable with failure, we have given ourselves a greater chance of success. The roots of the notion of creativity lie in creation, after all, and our collective consciousness have been shaped by our students’ creation. As our project races to completion with the creation of the short film, we look forward to more shifts in our thinking of what science or art really mean. We invite you to join us for the culmination of this experience on May 3.

References:

DeHaan, R. L. (2005). The impending revolution in undergraduate science education. Journal of Sci. Educ. and Tech., 14(2), 253-269.

Meinwald, J. & Hildebrand, J. G. (2010). Introduction. In J. Meinwald & J. G. Hildebrand (Eds .), Science and the educated American: A core component of liberal education (pp. 1-8). Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Munakata, M. and Vaidya, A. (2012) . Encouraging Creativity in Mathematics and Science Through Photography. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications. 31(3). 121-132.

Goldberg, D. E. (2008). Last word: Bury the Cold War curriculum. ASEE PRISM, 17(8).

National Research Council. (2005). S. Donovan & J. Bransford (Eds .) . How students learn: History, mathematics, and science in the classroom. Washington, D .C .: National Academies Press.

Performing Arts as Pedagogy, by Christopher Parker

Performing Arts as Pedagogy

by Christopher Parker

Dog Days Peak Performances

Lauren Worsham in Dog Days (photo by James Matthew Daniel).

Part of my Classical Mythology course requires students to attend a live dramatic or artistic performance. Not only are my students benefitting from the rich mythology themes often present in live performance, but most theater offerings and arts performances are rich with conceptual undertones of psychology, language, literature, physics, biology, technology, history, religion, philosophy and mathematics. I think it is clear how psychology, language and literature are present in drama. It takes a deeper analysis, but one can analyze performances for the elements of physics in narrative—such as I demonstrate in some of the examples below—as well as the actual physical science used in choreography, sound and special effects . Performing arts allow for analyzing biology, not only for performances that incorporate biology in the narrative, but by scrutiny of the bodies of the dancers, musicians and actors as well as in the imagery present in scrims. Math is present in the meter of poetry (cf. Birken, M., Coon, A. C. (2008). Discovering patterns in mathematics and poetry. Amsterdam, New York: Rondopi). Religion and philosophy are there in story, imagery and conversation. Of course there are more connections . Furthermore, preparation for attending performing arts, and discussions about them, assist in developing skills for critical thinking, writing, philosophical inquiry and reasoning.

That is why each semester my syllabus includes attendance at a performing arts piece on campus, hopefully together as a class. At Montclair State, student attendance is free because it is included in the their activities fees.

To select a show and time for each course per semester, I begin by researching upcoming offerings with the staff and curators in the Office of Arts and Cultural Programming (ACP) at Montclair State. The ACP often schedules these performances in collaboration with the departments of music, and theatre and dance, and help me arrange for conversations between my students and the artists. Then, once a show is selected for its relevance to my course material and appropriate timing, we fine-tune our collective attendance at the show.

First, timing: The exam period at the end of the semester usually means reduced attendance. The day before spring break doesn’t always work well either. So experience has shown that the best time to schedule performance attendance is early in the semester. Once we pick a good week we discuss, in class, the best night to attend the performance for the majority of students. Those students who may not be able to come with the rest of the class are invited to go on their own, another night . For a few, it may be impossible to see the chosen show at all, so they are advised to attend a different show. I may make some suggestions for other options currently available, and, for those who do not meet the performance requirement, I meet with them individually to discuss any conflicts.

Event poster, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Peak Performances, Montclair State University

Event poster, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Peak Performances, Montclair State University

Students are told that they will be writing a review of the event as well as developing questions for discussion with the people responsible for the performance (directors, performing artists, producers, etc.). We also may read some of the original sources of the theater piece. The syllabus clearly articulates the expected participation in live performances, and lays out what students can expect tied to the course learning goals.

Examples of Campus Arts and Cultural Programming

Most recently, two of my Mythology classes attended On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, from the Italian company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. More than 60 Mythology students from two classes were given the opportunity to meet with the director, Romeo Castellucci, earlier in the day of our chosen showtime. Then, directly before the performance, all my students and other guests were invited to a pre-show conversation with scholar Annalisa Sacchi, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University. This helped us to pre- prepare by understanding the context of the creation of the show and a scholarly approach to analyzing its meaning. These pre-show experiences develop an entire aesthetic: intellectual, international and historical context within which students could then absorb the experience of the performance.

Other examples of performances have been:

Sweeney Todd, which features a classic tragic hero;

1001, a re-creation of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of myths and folk legends from Arabian antiquity;

Prometheus–Landscape 2, a wild modern interpretation of the behaviors and personalities of the Greek gods;

Trojan Women, directly applicable to our course work, and performed using several languages (subtitled in English);

Kiss of the Spider Woman, linked to the myth of Arachne and the archetype of the classic Greek tragic hero;

But, while we were lucky to have such relevant performance pieces to choose from —directly tied to classical mythology—not all arts events are classic theater.

For instance, one semester a dance event coproduced by Peak Performances and Liz Lerman, called The Matter of Origins, told an interpretative story of the Manhattan Project and the development of the nuclear bomb. To connect more modern narratives with classical mythology, we explored the connections between this dance and the story of Prometheus, the end of the world and other deities of war and conflict. Act Two invited the audience on stage for conversation, inquiry, food and art at tables hosted by “provocateurs,” which was reminiscent of the Greek Chorus, representing people from the community . Insula, a dance-media-music-theater piece developed through the Department of Theatre and Dance, was conceived through collaboration with Artist-in-Residence Kari Margolis and MSU BFA students . Insula was rich with connections to Greek and Roman mythology from Odysseus to the apartment complexes of ancient Rome called “insula.”

We were able to experience Polynesian mythology through the narrative and hula presentation of Na Kinimakalehua, a Hawaiian company of hula artists. The company provided a study guide on Polynesian mythology that accompanied the hula performance. It is always useful to connect Greek mythology and its archetypes to other cultural or ethnic mythology and how they are, in fact, related by similar archetypes.

Pedagogy of Arts and Cultural Programming and the Class Subject Matter

The Review: A week before any performance I will give a workshop on how to write a play review. I am a regular reader of the arts critics of The New York Times and other newspaper’s theater critics, and over the years I have developed a basic format for how to structure a theater review. I give these format directions to the students and we read aloud a very recent theater review from a newspaper. We analyze the correlation between a recent review and our basic format . Reviews on the Internet tend to be different in style. And even though the Internet form of writing contributes a different style and format from more old-fashioned newspaper theater critiques, I find the print format works best for the objectives of this assignment: assisting in better perception of the entire performance in relation to the pre-defined objectives that writing a review calls for; understanding the creative process and how art is conceived; developing critical thinking; attentively addressing source information correctly and making knowledgeable and researched connections of the show to themes in classical mythology.

Peak Performances presents Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project performing "Quintett (1993) choreography by William Forsythe at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Credit: Stephanie Berger

Peak Performances presents Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project performing “Quintett (1993) choreography by William Forsythe
at Montclair State University, New Jersey.
Credit: Stephanie Berger

Communities of Inquiry: Conversations with the production professionals for On the Concept of the Face were readily available during their time on campus, but this is not always the case . It takes effort to bring together actors, directors and a dramaturge to discuss meaning behind a theater piece . The ACP helps me every semester by organizing and arranging schedules so students have access to the artists. I always try to arrange these talks for students so that not only is mythology suggestively brought before them in performance by people of their time or even their peers, but that real conversations of meaning and intent can occur .

To first-year students, such conversations and the ability to develop rich inquiry may not be immediate and natural . So I prepare students in multiple ways: before meeting the production artists, we hold a workshop on how to ask good questions—that go beyond questions such as “when did you start acting?”—to get deeper answers, and we practice identifying where we find classical mythology in the modern day. We explore the Greek poets, their forms and narratives . Then, for example, when poet Tracy Smith was at Montclair State, we reach an inquiry level like this:

I read in your poem “My God, Its Filled with Stars,” what appeared to me to be strong links to mythology (however you look at that). You seem to carry the mythology from what appears to be Gaea, though you don’t use that name in the poem, to the Odyssey, which of course is in the references you make to 2001 a Space Odyssey and then the follow up story of 2010 a Space Odyssey. You must think myth still works in poetry. Do you? And why do you evoke the ancient gods, does your father’s affiliation with Hubble bring in any revelations for you from the divine, at least metaphorically?

The point here is for us to experience the presence of ancient myth, or almost any class topic, through the artists of our time. In this way concepts cease to be old stories in old books and something we live now. I ask the students to embrace this and recognize it and learn better by actually experiencing mythology in the world of successful and talented artists, including their peers.

But learning and practicing critical questioning takes some consideration and thought. We evoke these thoughts in small communities of inquiry with the goal of developing a pool of questions to ask our artists. We experiment with Socratic questioning, and its relationship to Greek mythology and other Greek philosophers and their methods of examining knowledge. Each small team then assigns one or two members to actually present their questions during our conversations with the artists.

Original Sources: In many cases, we will review the original sources from which theater has emerged, such as the short story “Dog Days” which inspired the creation of a new opera piece co-produced at Montclair State, also called Dog Days. Dog Days is apocalyptic, which is a common theme in Greek and other mythologies . The show also explores the animal in the man and the feminine power of the heroine . Reading the short story that inspired the opera helped us develop valuable questions for the librettist and director, understand the narrative of the opera, and the meaning of the musical score itself.

My more than 10 years of experience working with artists on campus has enriched my pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. Infusing my courses with live performance experiences gives students a chance to find the relevance to the classical archetypes, evokes an enthusiastic desire for philosophical inquiry and critical thinking, builds (literally) critical writing skills, gives practical useful reasons for research on mythology or any subject, fosters public inquiry and speaking, and enriches the connection of the modern aesthetic with the literature of the past.

About the Author:

Christopher Parker teaches Mythology in the Classics and General Humanities department at Montclair State University and is also a poet and poet-in-the-schools with the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Columbia University and is completing an EdD in pedagogy and philosophy at Montclair State.

Using Screencasting for Teaching, by Kirk McDermid

Using Screencasting for Teaching, by Kirk McDermid

by Dr. Kirk McDermid, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Montclair State University

Courtesy Creative Commons, 2012.

Quick (boring) facts:

“Screencasting” is recording all or part of what’s happening on a computer’s display, to share with someone at a later date . It’s often used in software tutorials to give new users a visual aid to help familiarize them with the software . There are many different packages out there that can record screencasts, but I’ll be writing about a free service called “Jing” (techsmith.com/jing). Jing allows you to record a whole screen, a window, or a user-defined portion of a screen. It records up to 5 minutes of 10-frames-per-second video (so, not good for actual video, but just fine for showing mouse movements, etc.) and allows you to save them locally as swf (Flash) video files, or host them on screencast.com. (Techsmith also offers “Snagit,” which records more than 5 minutes and adds features, and Camtasia, an even more feature-filled screen-capture and video creator package.) Jing works on Windows (all contemporary versions) and Mac OS X 10 .6 .8 or later.

How I use it:

As with all teachers, I am constantly trying to find ways to improve communication with my students, and give them more effective feedback on their work—especially written work. And, of course, I’m lazy; I’d like to do it efficiently. (I’m also not the fastest typist, so I find that while typed feedback is an improvement over handwriting, it’s still very time consuming). I do use rubrics or other ‘pre-made’ commentary for general or common feedback, but that just doesn’t cut it when you find something that doesn’t fit the categories you defined before reading student work. I also find that I’m not good at conveying nuance in my comments— students find it difficult to distinguish ‘minor’ comments or asides from central, fundamental feedback about their work.

(And it gets worse when I can’t control my sarcasm or humor. For some reason, students aren’t prepared to detect those when they’re reading evaluations of their work.)

So, I screencast.

Courtesy Creative Commons, 2012.

Courtesy Creative Commons, 2012.

It’s simple: I set up a Jing window to record an area of a few lines’ worth of their paper, and I record myself reading it . (Yes, I almost entirely accept coursework in electronic form. I always have a copy; we have email records (or other means) to validate submissions, and the writing is always legible.) I skip over the dull parts (the dull parts of my reading, that is) by pressing a “pause recording” button, so it appears that I’ve read sections very fast sometimes, but then the whole screencast is full of commentary from me. (You can see times when I do that in the example screencasts, as my mouse flicks down to the left where the pause button is located outside the recording frame.) Sometimes it takes two or even three five-minute videos to read and respond to an entire paper, but if it’s one-two pages, one video does the trick . Then, just a brief typewritten summary at the end of the paper (mostly to remind myself of the evaluation I just gave in video form) and it’s returned to the student with a link to the screencast. (Total elapsed time is more than just the five-minute video that’s produced; if you screw up something or get interrupted, Jing doesn’t let you edit—you have to start over. But generally I get videos done in a single take, with only a few minutes of paused reading time, so a five-minute video might take 6-10 minutes to produce.)

Here is an example of a short essay that took me two five-minute videos to read: screencast.com/t/6rSmcB9o and screencast.com/t/qN1uIwcEjC .

But essays aren’t the only student work that visual and verbal feedback can help with. I use screencasts in a critical thinking/ informal logic course, where students have to do things like reconstruct an argument into a structured format for analysis. There are many moving parts, and it’s a nightmare to give good feedback just by typing, as your focus shifts from premise to premise as you critique their work. Another benefit: it’s easy to post screencast links as part of a discussion thread, and other students can easily follow along and benefit, too . Here’s an example: screencast.com/t/k6sdQhJ05o1S.

How do students respond? I haven’t done a formal study, so all I have are anecdotes which are generally very positive. I’ve had students describe it as having me “read their paper over their shoulder.” Yes, I thought that sounded creepy too, but they intended it as an endorsement. I find that students can understand me better, as they can hear my tone and emphasis. They can also replay the video whenever they want . (Another under-appreciated benefit, in my view, is that they have to listen to the whole thing to understand my evaluation— they can’t skip to the end or just find “the grade” to see what I thought of the paper.) Like any assignment and feedback, what you put in a Jing screencast is only as good as your feedback, and the structure of your assignment. I typically assign papers that can be revised and resubmitted; students have a good motive to listen to my feedback in that case (whether it was a Jing, or not). I also find that students have fewer misunderstandings about what I’m referring to in my feedback—some errors or problems can’t be easily located using a pen on paper (arrows, circles, everywhere!!) but with a Jing, they can see you draw or scroll to the areas you’re focused on. (See the logic screencast above for a good example of that .) I used to screencast on a convertible tablet, using a pen to scribble on documents as I read and talked (awesome); now I have a plain laptop, but I can indicate passages clearly just by moving the mouse (great, not awesome).

I do also use Jing to screencast tutorials; if you’ve ever had students complain they don’t know where to find something on Blackboard, use a screencast to answer that once, then post it somewhere you know they can find it. I also run an off-campus hosted wiki as a coursework site for students; Jing eases the learning curve, since it’s something they’ve never done before . (It’s a unique type of wiki.) Here’s an example: screencast.com/t/0yUQrYYQYvM.

About the author:

Kirk McDermid is an assistant professor of philosophy at Montclair State University. As a philosopher and physicist (BSc in physics from UBC, MSc and PhD in philosophy from the London School of Economics and the University of Western Ontario, respectively) interested in the philosophy of science and epistemology, he has published in Physics Letters A, Religious Studies and Teaching Philosophy. He is also associate faculty at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, team teaching a course on critical thinking for Justice Studies students with a law enforcement veteran. He is always interested in exploring innovative pedagogy and instructional technology as ways to increase student engagement and make differentiated, student-driven learning manageable for instructors. His current research interests center on developing an epistemology of student plagiarism, examining the philosophical import of variational methods in physics, and implementing a semantic wiki to manage student learning and collaboration.

Playing Games to Learn – Ideas and Resources

LogicPuzzleMy 7th/8th grade math teacher, Ms. Whitney, always included logic puzzles at the end of every unit test given on each Friday. When reviewing the test answers on Monday morning, she always walked us through the solution of the puzzle. For all of us in her 7th and 8th grade math classes, those puzzles were the real reward for finishing the test, with the additional bonus of 10 extra credit points on the test if you completed a puzzle successfully. Sometimes I ran out of time and sometimes I finished them; I always loved to try. I still enjoy logic puzzles to this day, and I still feel very accomplished if I can finish one on the first try (very rare): they can be extremely hard, at times seem impossible to solve. These games were not frivolous or without real learning outcomes, despite the fact that we students didn’t know that. We had fun trying them and competing with each other to see who could finish one, and in the process, learned about strategy, elimination of facts, cross-referencing clues, referring back and anticipating forward: that is, how to think logically. The logic puzzles were contained within funny and appealing narratives (seven students tried out for the school play: figure out who got the lead role, who was understudy, who became a prop, etc. based on the clues provided).

Games are an integral part of learning. Ask any five-year old or, like me, a struggling 7th grade math student. When we play games, we fall down, get tagged out, get hit with the dodge ball, lose some/win some, take risks, try again, show up, work together, strategize, change tactics/approaches –we try. There is very little we won’t do or try  to succeed at a game – even if we don’t always win. Sometimes we walk away from a game out of frustration, disappointment, anger, boredom, hurt feelings, sour grapes; we quit, but the game stays with us, we usually come back and try again, or the sense of failing may follow us forever (despite being tall, I was never good at basketball; I’m still trying to land a layup).

Jane McGonigal believes that games can make a better world. Tom Chatfield connects gaming with brain rewards and intrinsic motivation. It’s worth your time to listen to these two TED Talks and consider how games may make your teaching and student learning explode with excitement, engagement, interactivity, and, most importantly, fun:

Jane McGonigal TED Talk: Gaming can make a better world

Tom Chatfield: 7 ways that games reward the brain

So now that we know how engaging gaming is (and this isn’t just about video games!), why aren’t we using more games in our classrooms? Or, why haven’t we found the game that will change the dynamic, light some fires, introduce fun, into our class? It’s not so easy to just think up a game that meets our content specifications, learning goals, and assessment/grading needs. Sometimes we just need to see what other people are doing out there, to be inspired and try something new for presenting or delivering conceptual material in our courses. So below you will find a whole list of examples from disciplines across the curriculum. Hopefully, you find something that appeals.

One of the foremost theorists on the connection between gaming and learning, employing what he calls “pedagogies that combine immersion with well-designed guidance” is James Paul Gee. His research article, “Game-Like Learning,” contains a wealth of examples on how to leverage video games for knowledge building, especially conceptual simulations that apply new knowledge and immerse students in environments that provide opportunities for making judgments and receiving formative feedback. Here –very condensed– are some of his examples (read the full article here: http://www.jamespaulgee.com/node/29):

  • Supercharged!

    “Kurt Squire and his colleagues (Squire et al. 2004; see also Jenkins, Squire, and Tan 2003; Squire 2003) have worked on a computer game called Supercharged! to help students learn physics. Supercharged! is an electro- magnetism simulation game developed in consultation with MIT physicist John Belcher by the Games-to-Teach project at MIT (run by Henry Jenkins; see http://www.educationarcade.org). Players use the game to explore electromag- netic mazes, placing charged particles and controlling a ship that navigates by altering its charge. The game play consists of two phases: planning and playing. Each time players encounter a new level, they are given a limited set of charges that they can place throughout the environment, enabling them to shape the trajectory of their ship.”

  • Augmented by reality: Madison 2020250px-SimCity_2013_Limited_Edition_cover

    “In their Madison 2020 project, David Shaffer and Kelly Beckett at the University of Wisconsin have developed, implemented, and assessed a game-like simulation that simulates some of the activities of professional urban planners (Beckett and Shaffer 2004; see also Shaffer et al. 2004). This game (and I will call it a game because it functions very much like a game in the learning environment in which it is used) and its learning environment incorporate many of the same deep learning principles that we have seen at play in Full Spectrum Warrior [a commercial video game Gee references earlier in the article –JD].

    Shaffer and Beckett’s game is not a stand-alone entity but is used as part of a larger learning system. Shaffer and Beckett call their approach to game- like learning “augmented by reality,” because a virtual reality – that is, the game simulation – is augmented or supplemented by real-world activities; in this case, further activities of the sort in which urban planners engage. Minority high school students in a summer enrichment program engaged with Shaffer and Beckett’s urban planning simulation game, and, as they did so, their problem-solving work in the game was guided by real-world tools and practices taken from the domain of professional urban planners.

    As in the game SimCity, in Shaffer and Beckett’s game, students make land- use decisions and consider the complex results of their decisions. However, unlike in SimCity, they use real-world data and authentic planning practices to inform those decisions.”

  • Assessing Learning Through Games

    “Why, then, would we need any assessment apart from the game itself? One reason – indeed, a reason Janie herself would – is that Janie might want to know, at a somewhat more abstract level than moment-by-moment play, how she is doing and how she can do better. She might want to know which features of her activities and strategies in the game are indicative of progress or success and which are not. Of course, the game is very complex, so this won’t be any particular score or grade. What Janie needs is a formative or developmental assessment that can let her theorize her play and change it for the better, and this is what the game gives her.

    At the end of any play session in Rise of Nations [a commercial real-time strategy game, discussed by Gee earlier in the article to provide an example of a complex, real-time, competitive game that is challenging and has built-in learning assessments –JD], the player does not just get the message “you win” or “you lose,” but rather a dozen charts and graphs detailing a myriad of aspects of her activities and strategies across the whole time span of her play (and her civilization’s life). This gives Janie a more abstract view of her play; it models her play session and gets her to see her play session as one “type” of game, one way to play the game against other ways. It gives her a meta-representation of the game and her game play in terms of which she can become a theoretician of her own play and learning. From this information, she does not learn just to be faster or “better”; she learns how to think strategically about the game in ways that allow her to transform old strategies and try out new ones. She comes to see the game as a system of interconnected relationships.”

madlibsThere are many other examples, some more or less sophisticated than the ones Gee describes, of educators using gaming to teach disciplinary concepts, or, more meta-cognitively, to teach higher-order thinking, strategy, creativity, and problem-solving using “real-life” situational simulations. In addition to my experience with logic puzzles, I know of English professors who use Mad Libs to teach linguistics, concepts of semiology, etc. I have read of professors who use the board game Clue to teach deductive vs. inductive reasoning. Here is a list of other higher education practices and programs who are successfully using games in their teaching:Clue Classic Boardgame $13.00

  • Stanford University Med School: EteRNA. Players arrange colored discs into two-dimensional chain-link shapes to create blueprints for RNA molecules. Link: http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2011/january/eterna.html
  • McGill University, Montreal, Canada: Phylo. An online game that anyone can play (try it out, it’s cool!), it is a simply puzzle format that has players shift genetic sequences to find the best possible matches for up to eight species at a time. Link: http://phylo.cs.mcgill.ca/
  • Magazine2CoverArtworkMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Education Arcade. Features The Radix Endeavor, designed to resemble World of Warcraft type game experience, a multi-player environment that is competitive, where knowledge is collected and hoarded, and problems solved using mathematical and scientific concepts.
  • CancerZap! Needs players! Opportunity for science educators to get students involved in research simulation. Read more: http://www.photonics.com/Article.aspx?AID=51398
  • RTTP Picture 2Barnard College, Dr. Mark Carnes: Reacting to the Past. Involves role playing, classic texts, historical settings, period costumes, and is currently used on over 300 campuses to teach and immerse students in history and literature. Link: http://reacting.barnard.edu/

For those of you who are already game-users or early classroom-game adopters, please share your practice or experience! I will publish each comment or email that comes in that details how to use game play (of any nature) to teach a concept or course material. I’d love to turn this post into a centralized resource to inspire educators to try out games in their course design.

References/Additional Reading:

“Games for Science” The Scientist, 1 Jan. 2013. Web <http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/33715/title/Games-for-Science/>

“Colleges Latest Thrust in Learning: Video Games,” USA Today, 29 Nov. 2011. Web. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/story/2011-11-29/video-games-college-learning/51478224/1>

“Where Does Gamification Fit in Higher Education?” EdTech, 30 Nov. 2012. Web. <http://www.edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2012/11/where-does-gamification-fit-higher-education-infographic>

Virtual Video Platform Eases the Use of Debate in Teaching Critical Thinking and Perspective

Using structured debate in the classroom to teach perspective, critical thinking, review, editing, rhetoric, and application of theoretical concepts, is no new tactic, though it’s often dismissed as too difficult to implement, too time-consuming, or too intensive for students to appreciate and do well.

There are some exciting new tools available for educators to re-think using debate in their classrooms, and the tools available at the link below, especially Vbates — a virtual video platform that allows students to record, edit, and upload their rhetorical speeches, as well as vote and give feedback on each others presentation — promises to ease the implementation, assessment, and access issues associated with setting up debate formats in your courses.

http://ltlatnd.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/idea-offers-video-debate-platform/

I am actively soliciting articles, essays, or just some anecdotal commentary on how people are using debate in their courses. Please comment here or send me an email. And, if anyone does try out Vbate, please please please let me know how it worked and your review of it as an educator.

Creative videos show cultural connections

Creative videos show cultural connections.

Games for Science: The Scientist Magazine

There has been a growing interest in how teachers can leverage student’s engagement with games to enhance learning. This article summarizes some applications of games in the sciences. To go directly to the article in The Scientist Magazine, Games for Science, skip to here: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/33715/title/Games-for-Science/

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