Building a Mystery: Pseudoform, Physics, and Phun

I’ve been keeping my eye on an extremely promising project that should enhance critical thinking skills, student engagement, creativity, and reveal the joy of learning. The object of my attention is Pseudoform. It’s a project dedicated to creating an engrossing, near-addictive “first-person puzzle-solving” game. Although no downloads (beta, alpha, or otherwise) are currently available, I’m hungry for an opportunity to tinker with what Pseudoform is promising. An exploration of the site’s media collection is enough to make visitors to play with its developing product.

pseudoform

While waiting for Pseudoform to take form, educators and students interested in interactive multiphysics simulation resources have a number of related diversions to keep them occupied. For example, Microsoft Physics Illustrator (also referred to as Magic Paper), is a 2D physics simulator developed by MIT’s Design Rationale group that’s as fun as it is informative. Although it was originally developed for use on tablet PCs, the application can be used with non-tablet PCs as well. For a more amusing and game-like experience that will get mental wheels turning nonetheless, teachers and pupils can explore the principles of physics and work their way through a goodly portion of confounding fun with Crayon Physics. It’s a pleasurable means of learning about physics that was designed by a fantastic Finn named Petri Purho, who showcases his work at Kloonigames. While watching and testing hypotheses centered around gravity, mass, kinetic energy and the transfer of momentum, those using Crayon Physics will most likely get an itch to investigate the game’s descendant, Crayon Physics Deluxe. And finally, there’s Phun, a “2D physics sandbox” that encourages users to take a constructionist approach to learning about how and why things happen the way they do

A Window of Opportunity

I frequently get requests from administrators and educators who want me to share technology-related resources that will help students become better thinkers. I get telephone calls or emails from folks asking the same question: “Hey, do you know of any websites or programs that’ll help our pupils refine their problem-solving skills?” I usually pause a moment and answer, “Yes,” and begin describing a number of suggestions. During the course of the ensuing conversation many of those who contact me intimate that what they really want are digitized busy work activities, mainly of the drill and kill variety. Oddly enough this kind of scenario repeats itself with a surprising number of Science teachers. This never ceases to surprise me. I guess I just expect those who teach Science to always be on the lookout for ways to help learners find experiences that go well beyond memorization, facts, and recall and dive into opportunities for hypothesizing, applying logic, and critical and creative thinking.

Now, I’ll concede that occasional drilling is necessary. After all, facts and mastery of basic skills help to form a firm foundation upon which new information can be assessed and extended. Reasonably sustained practice results in a liberating level of automaticity that basically frees one’s mind so it can focus on other details. That said, killing a young mind with needlessly boring repetition is totally unnecessary. Learning and doing should be worthwhile and anticipated. The rehearsal of information and skills should be infectiously engaging. Young men and women who are eager to be present in a classroom are much more likely to absorb, retain, and use (well beyond the confines of school) the facts and skills they encounter.

A good case in point is the manner in which some schools introduce the Scientific Method. Though the Scientific Method is vital to increasing one’s understanding of the universe, pupils rarely get to practice its tenets! Instead, in many classrooms, row after row of boys and girls are repeatedly made to copy down descriptions of the process as if, by the magic of cognitive osmosis, the concept will be slowly but eventually absorbed into the brain. Rather than simply having pupils memorize dry definitions of the Scientific Method, teachers could give students opportunities to see and experience the value experimentation. In fact, if the Scientific Method is to help learners gain a better conceptualization of the world around them, students must have chances to:

  • carefully investigate, describe, and record phenomena,
  • acquire new knowledge,
  • make guesses and generate hypotheses,
  • distinguish false or inaccurate data from true data,
  • distinguish disconnected lines of thought from those that truly apply to a given situation,
  • develop novel ideas/perspectives, and
  • apply critical, logical and creative thinking to the achievement of desired goals.

In short, when exploring Science (and other disciplines) pupils need engrossing experiences that require the application of  critical thinking, logical thinking, creative thinking and strategic thinking skills. There all kinds of digital resources available to dedicated teachers who want students to hunger for a taste of the Scientific Method. Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to entice learners into applying the precepts of experimentation and logic. This can be done with games. Well constructed games create favorable conditions for making and testing hypotheses, applying logic, and generating creative approaches to problems. Games need not be difficult, only intriguing and challenging.

windosill

For example, many people have been excitedly discussing a new game called Windosill. Developed by Patrick Smith (of Vectorpark renown) the game is a thoroughly absorbing experience that is as much a feast for the mind as it is for the eyes. Windosill, much like real life, starts out easy enough. Within a few minutes, though, attention to detail and suppositions, logic, strategy, hypothesizing, and experimentation come into play. This game could could easily be integrated into instruction.

Imagine a Science classroom where there’s an interactive whiteboard (like those produced by Interwite, Promethean, and SMARTBoard). Pupils are asked to explore the game using the interactive whiteboard and collaboratively examine, describe, and record (via a resource such as Google Docs) what they (think) they see/understand. As they try to clarify the underlying logic and “rules” that drive the game they have numerous opportunities to hypothesize, experiment, record data, and ascertain the laws under which the Windosill universe operates. Such an experiment would not only be engaging–heck, plain old fun–it would engender a reinforcing habit for continually working at understanding a problem/situation/event. It would create a habit for the pleasure of thinking.

All a teacher, a student, or parent has to do, it seems, is escape from the narrow confines of the assumption that learning must be drill and kill in nature. All we have to do is find a way out of our current modes of thought. We have to be creative and take advantage of the raptures of seeing the world around us from a new vantage point. Are we game enough to do so?

NOTEWindosill is an absolute treat! I had the great pleasure of downloading the game and quickly decided to pay the very nominal fee of $3 to get the full version. The challenging nature of Windosill along with the captivating images and features that suffuse this surreal Flash-based game make it an immediate favorite among students of all ages. If it whets your appetite for similar experiences, take a gander at the equally eclectic Feed the Head and Levers.

Game to Learn?

I’ve been playing Planarity (devised by the ever clever John Tantolo) for years now. Planarity is a supremely addictive game/pastime that’s based on planars and graph theory. Give it a try. Hours will disappear! In fact, I find it hard not to want to play Planarity because the game is so darned engaging. After playing the game I find myself thinking about what I should have done but didn’t do. What is it about certain games (like Snood, Sudoku and Tetris for instance) that generate a continual desire within us to play them over and over again? If only we could capture the thrill and satisfaction that games and enjoyable diversions provide and infuse the same qualities within other, more educational pursuits, our students would create a stampede to learn. Heck, we could use games with a purpose to make the world a much better place.

Marc Prensky, author of Digital Game-Based Learning and twitch speed expert, notes that most popular games:

  • focus on engaging the user,
  • encourage frequent, important decision-making in relation to the game,
  • making provisions for leveling up (providing immediate feedback that tells players when they’re getting better at the game–not,for example, unlike good assessment), and
  • allow users to embrace technology.

Why aren’t schools doing more to incorporate Prensky’s ideas within classroom settings? I wonder what might happen if we designed instruction so that is learning emotionally engaging, relevant, and possibly fun. Fulfillment and education are not mutually exclusive pursuits. Technology gives educators the means of making travel along the path to enlightenment a pleasurable, meaningful journey.

Related links:

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