To wrap up my mini-series on educational video gaming, allow me to share the other online resources that we have particularly enjoyed over the last year or two. Given our tech limitations (we own only laptops – no Ipads or Itouches or anything like that), we generally stick to the resources we can easily access on the web.
As I was writing this post, I realized there is perhaps a discussion to be had as to what constitutes a video game. Is it simply a self-contained app that you play exclusively on a tech device? Or do you take into account resources that provide challenges to accomplish away from the computer or Ipad, rewarding players only upon completion of the task? For this post, I choose the second and broader view.
I’ve spoken about this game before. CellCraft is a game we discovered only this year, and thoroughly enjoyed its fun combination of learning with super fun video-gaming challenges and silly fantasy. Here’s my take, from my previous post:
The other completely addictive activity we dived into is a video game called CellCraft. Holy cow, folks – this was ridiculously fun. Though the creators definitely took some artistic license (you find the organelles you need, and at one point our animal cell is given plant cell chloroplasts to generate more energy), the science behind most of the game is pretty accurate. The player must run the cell, making sure all organelles are doing what they need to do, and are getting the resources they need to thrive.
Viruses periodically attack the cell, which you must biologically defend, and there is an overarching fantasy narrative: an alien platypus race on a threatened planet is sending this cell across the expanse of space to land on a new planet (Earth) where it can grow into new platypusses. Platypi? Whatever. It’s cute and fun. Eva and I played it together for days, and I loved hearing her yell out “we need more lysosomes!!” and the like. It’s free for download, so check it out. Ian played it a little too, but he hasn’t covered cell biology yet. After watching both experiences, I recommend using it after the student has already studied the structure and function of a cell. It’s better as a reinforcement activity than a straight-ahead teaching tool.
Interestingly, now that the semester is over, I’ve been able to compare having a kid use it in tandem with biology study and not. Eva played the whole game through, and even now, months later, she has a firm grasp on the variety and function of a cell’s organelles. Ian, who only dabbled in the game one afternoon, still has to really think to recall the same information. Eva engaged with the material more deeply than her brother because of CellCraft; the game took us many hours to play, and oftentimes she and I had to work together to make sure the cell got what it needed during its more dire moments. It was exciting and fun, and now that information is hers. Ian on the other hand learned the information more traditionally – through lectures and texts – and never became emotionally invested, so the information failed to resonate. I mean, he gets it. He just doesn’t own it.
Alcumus falls under my broader video game definition. This “game” is honestly more of a cool math problem generator that rewards success with XP and challenge badges (pre-algebra and up). Think along the lines of a Khan Academy setup. For a while, Ian loved Alcumus. This was a couple of years ago when he was stagnating in math. I could give him a set of problems on a sheet of paper, and he would absolutely hate it. But when the same problems were presented to him with Alcumus’ digital rewards, math became something to look forward to. Seriously – he went from struggling through this topic for 40 minutes a day to working without interruption for up to 4 hours at a time! This excitement did eventually wear off for him, and Alcumus has never had the same pull for Eva that it did for her brother, but still. It’s free, has quality problems with funny educational instructional videos to help you out if you need it, and it just may be the thing your kid needs to get through a difficult hump in math. To be honest, I think the instructional videos – though still limited in scope – are more engaging than the ones Khan Academy produces. Not to diss Khan. I love me some Khan. But hopefully by now, you’re well-educated about that fabulous resource.
This is our newest discovery, and hoo-boy, are we instant fans. Their mission is to help kids become makers. Makers of anything – music, art, clubs, science gizmos, computer gizmos… they challenge you to cook, work on open source sites, create forts, make magic, build an engine, study wildlife, and yes you Minecraft-addicts: they even have Minecraft-related challenges. Here’s the very simple way it works: choose a challenge (or create your own), follow the instructions (or make your own), complete the challenge, photograph or film it, and upload it to your free account on the site. The staff reviews and approves your work, and you get an awesomesauce badge (think Girl Scouts) once you’ve completed three tasks in a single topic. If they like your work, they’ll highlight it on their website, making you feel super-cool. Eva and I have decided that science for all of next year will simply be making stuff, using this amazing resource.
Hmm. So now you may be asking: what no Angry Birds? Well, actually, no. I’m a reluctant gamer, I suppose, and my preference for the most part is topic-specific resources like CellCraft and Alcumus, and those like DIY that encourage real-life interaction. At the end of the day, I hope to have spent much more time away from screens than in front of them.
But before you techies judge me as a stone-ager, allow me to share this video that came across my feed this week: a message about the importance of moving beyond simply playing games to learning the code that comprises them. (And, you guessed it - there’s a link at the end to a site where you can learn how to code with a bit of gaming help!) No matter how we feel about them, video games and technology and the code that makes them do what they do are an important part of our existence today. Code is our language now. And we’d best not get left behind.