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Playing with Our Future
High-Tech Toys as Teaching Tools

January 1998

The game opens with an introduction: the player must get to the home of the Greek god Zeus. Unfortunately, the map to his house has been ripped apart and the gods and goddesses have the pieces. To collect them, the player needs to visit each deity and answer a question about a fraction. If successful, the player will end up with the whole map, bypass the raging bull at the front of Zeus' house, and become the god or goddess of fractions.

As computer games go, this one will never rival Mario Brothers or Pac Man for excitement. Even as a teaching tool, it leaves something to be desired, admits Yasmin Kafai, Director of the Game Design Project and professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles. But as the first design and delivered product of a fourth grader, the game in question is a huge success.

The designer and her 15 classmates in a Massachusetts elementary school each conceptualized and developed a game. They learned how to make the games interactive and how to address consequences for right and wrong answers. And they learned how to step back, take the player's perspective and make sure their instructions were clear.

"Many children have a hard time with this concept," says Kafai. "Designing games forces children to think up front about how other people will react, and then use that information in the design."

The Game Design Project is one of many NSF-funded projects that takes advantage of children's love of video games and their lack of apprehension about technology to help them learn and use high-level thinking. Projects in inter-school computer networks, virtual reality, science-oriented software, interactive science Web sites, and robotics are all part of NSF's parade of information technologies systems.

The systems, educators find, can motivate learners, regardless of location and socioeconomic status, to access resources, information, experts, mentors and colleagues. Teachers use the technologies to integrate abstract and hands-on learning, and to provide students with access to research methods previously available only to scientists and other professionals.

In addition, NSF is using these projects to address the premise that, if society is to continue to benefit from the rapid expansion of new knowledge, humans need to exercise and expand their powers of reasoning.

So while some of the projects, especially those for younger students, might seem like they're asking kids to "just play around," in reality, they're developing valuable teaching and learning strategies.

"We know that motivation plays an extremely important role in education," says NSF's Nora Sabelli, Senior Program Director in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. Motivation comes from children directing, participating in, or playing at projects. "To adults, play is just what children do. But that's the point. Play implies doing something, not being passive. Playing while learning increases the time spent on the task, an important predictor of retained knowledge."


Dolls, miniature cars, and building blocks. Children play with items that will become important to them as adults.

For Seymour Papert, the toy of choice was gears. Papert is a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the founders of MIT's Artificial Intelligence and Media Laboratories. He pioneered educational research using mathematics to understand how children learn and think.

As a child, Papert was fascinated by gears. In them he found a useful metaphor for visualizing abstract mathematical ideas. Only as an adult did he realize that not everyone has such a metaphor. In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, Papert suggests computers may work for modern children the way gears worked for him. "[The computer's] essence is its universality, its power to simulate," he writes in his introduction. "Because it can take a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes."

But recreation itself is not enough, says Kafai, who worked at the MIT Media Laboratory. Instead, she wants children to create their own games, learning not only design and organizational skills, but also programming techniques.

"Just as we hope children will learn how to read and write to express themselves, making games provides a vehicle to bring children up to some level of technical expertise so they can express themselves in the electronic media as well," she says.


Besides the skills learned in handling technology, Kafai and other researchers are finding other pluses, including the fact that projects such as the game design serve as gender equalizers. Kafai found that, with a motivating project and computer time, girls easily perform at the same levels as boys.

For students in the Maryland Virtual High School of Science and Mathematics, the benefit was learning to think independently. High schoolers worked on a collaborative project in seismology that used a computer network to link six schools. With each school acting as an independent seismograph station, the students had to find the epicenter of a distant earthquake.

Individually, none of the schools had enough information; however, by sharing the information across the Net and working in teams, the students discovered the answer for themselves. The process pushed them into independent thought, says the project's principal investigator Mary Ellen Verona.

"Students were in the habit of uncritically accepting information obtained from so-called authorities, such as textbooks and teachers," she says. "Now students are understanding that the information we have about natural phenomenon is incomplete and sometimes contradictory."

Another important factor, says Bill Winn, Director of the Learning Center at the University of Washington, is that the new technology appeals to many kinds of learners. The Learning Center is part of the University's Human Interface Technology Laboratory and manages such projects as taking virtual reality (VR) demonstrations to schools, building VR systems, and working with classes to design their own.

In one of the projects, Winn worked with a class that was designing a VR ecosystem, while down the hall, another class was studying the same material in a more traditional setting. This allowed for an informal comparison of the two systems.

Winn and his colleagues found, not surprisingly, that students who normally do well on traditional tests did well in both classes. However, students who do not do well on these tests did perform well in the VR project.

"It leveled the playing field," Winn said of the VR project. He attributed the change to the number of ways the children had to learn. In VR, they were no longer limited to the text and lecture system of the traditional school setting.

Winn also found that VR offered children a way around the difficulties of abstract concepts. When studying chemistry in VR, molecules are no longer seen as numbers on a sheet paper, but as visual representations of nuclei, protons and electrons in interaction.

What's more, the project extends the students' thought processes, says Winn. "The children tend to depart from a purely linear way of thinking. They develop hyperminds, linking ideas very quickly, and looking for connections."

Likewise science software, such as ScienceWare, developed at the University of Michigan, and GenScope, a teaching aide for genetics, as well as interactive science Web sites, act as catalysts, expanding students' thought processes and their excitement about science.

Mitchel Resnick, an MIT professor who studies learning at the Media Laboratory, has had similar responses to his hands-on technology projects. Technology, he notes, can engage children in thinking through difficult topics. Resnick has developed new "computational construction kits" that children use to build and program their own robotic "creatures". As children work on these projects, they learn about feedback and control concepts that are normally considered advanced engineering techniques. "If you give kids the right tools and toys, they can start exploring these concepts immediately," he says.

Resnick also pushes for kids to take science personally. In a project called Beyond Black Boxes, children design not only their own science experiments but also the equipment needed to run the experiments. "The idea is for children to investigate personally meaningful questions, not just follow some recipe."

Resnick's research group has developed "programmable bricks" (LEGO bricks with computer chips) to help children build scientific instruments. One pair of girls (10 and 11 years old) decided to investigate the eating habits of birds. They built a new bird feeder equipped with sensors, a camera and programmable brick. When a bird lands on the feeder, the sensor sends a signal to the brick, which turns on a LEGO mechanism, which presses the camera shutter to snap a picture.

The girls' pictures show birds at the feeder, as well as some squirrels and their younger sister. As a next step, the girls plan to investigate whether different types of seed attract different types of birds.


The guiding principle behind these projects is the educational theory of constructionism. Constructionism, a concept developed at the Media Lab, is grounded in the idea that people learn by creating new knowledge through the manipulating objects, not by having information "poured" into their heads.

Another way of looking at it, Resnick suggests, is to compare this kind of educational experience with playing music. "If you want to learn about music, you can learn to play the stereo or learn to play piano. Our method is more like learning to play piano. You are becoming the creator."

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