Physics Playground: a game to teach qualitative physics

In 2011, we received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop an educational video game to help middle school students better understand concepts related to qualitative physics. Qualitative physics is the nonverbal understanding of Newton's three laws of motion: the law of inertia, force is proportional to mass x acceleration, and actions have equal & opposite reactions. Since qualitative physics is non-verbal, it is often assessed through pictures. For example, one might ask a student to draw the expected trajectory of a projectile to gauge their understanding of F=ma.

We worked using evidence-centered design to develop a game to elicit and improve qualitative physics competencies through gameplay. The result of this work is Physics Playground (formerly known as Newton's Playground), a video game that challenges the player to guide a green ball to reach a red balloon by drawing objects in an interactive physics environment. Players draw using the mouse and their drawings become part of the physics environment, interacting with the ball and other objects in the world to complete levels.

Physics Playground puzzles are divided into several playgrounds that get progressively more difficult. Each problem is designed using the principles of evidence-centered design in order to elicit particular qualitative physics concepts. In a study of 165 middle school students, we found that playing Newton's Playground for about four hours leads to significant gains in qualitative physics knowledge.

Please contact us if you are interested in obtaining the full version which features:

  • Over 80 awesome levels!
  • A level designer to create your own levels
  • Detailed log files about player interaction with the game

Codecraft: a game to teach computer programming

Software that teaches introductory programming must be accessible to beginners, cover a large range of proficiencies, be self-sufficient, enable transfer, support equity, and be scalable. In an attempt to address these demands, we recently created a prototype computer game called CodeCraft that teaches the fundamental concepts of computer programming. CodeCraft challenges players to program a robot in order to solve puzzles in a 3D environment using a guided programming interface. In each puzzle, the player is given a set of constraints that may be environmental (e.g., physical obstacles, mobile enemies) or programmatic (e.g., limited availability of programming constructs). We believe CodeCraft has the ability to teach computer programming concepts in an effective and fun way to a wide variety of student populations.

A basic CodeCraft puzzle focusing on sequence.

The Virtual Spatial Navigation Assessment: an assessment of large scale spatial ability

In the Virtual Spatial Navigation Assessment (VSNA), the player must explore an immersive 3D environment using a first person avatar on a computer. In each environment gems are strategically located in the so that an optimal path can be used to collect all the gems. In each environment, a person must collect a set of brightly colored gems which are scattered throughout the environment. Players need to complete the task twice for each environment. The first collection of gems is the training phase, which is intended to familiarize the person with the environment. The second collection of gems is the testing phase, which requires the person to obtain all the gems again as fast as possible. We have found that performance in the VSNA was significantly correlated to a variety of outcomes including math SAT scores, and choosing a STEM career.

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