Physics Simulations Online

Passed on from Michael Steinberg of New York City – PhET Physics Education Technology – a terrific website full of fun, interactive simulations of physical phenomena. There are simulations for biology, physics, chemistry, math, electronics and more.

There are lessons and workshops for teachers, research support and lots of support materials.

The simulations can be run online or downloaded and run offline, and there is even an option to easily download all the simulations in one package.

These simulations look terrific and have easy to use controls and help integrated into each one. Unlike some interactive simulations, these have measurement tools built in so they can be used to support real science learning. Many of them have also been translated into many languages, and are open source so they can be modified if you want.

Check it out!


More on Flunking Spore…

Last week I blogged (Flunking Spore – video game failed by scientists) about Science magazine’s Oct 24 review of the new video game Spore that outlined the problems of looking at the game as a way to learn biology. Not only did multiple scientists give the game poor grades for science content, but a documentary promoting the game misleadingly used interviews with scientists that implied endorsement.

Now, Eric Klopfer and Kurt Squire, co-founders of the Learning Games Network, respected researchers and proponents of games in education, respond to “Flunking Spore.” In two articles (part 1, part 2), they tackle some of the objections, and provide a their point of view. While they agree that the basic science in Spore is not appropriate as a substitute for biology curriculum, they defend the game as a breakthrough in user interface and design.

Kurt Squire argues that Spore is easily recognizable to a veteran game player for what it is, a game of design, where the player is the master of a make-believe universe.

What I think gets lost here is that players actually have relatively sophisticated ways of interpreting games like Spore. While I share the author’s concerns about games reinforcing people’s naive conceptions about science, Spore, I would argue, is so clearly a design game that most “literate” gamers quickly see that it’s a design game, and regard it as such.

OK, I agree here. But most people who aren’t veteran game players won’t see this subtle point. We know that people learn a lot from games, but we don’t quite know what to call it. It’s not learning that can be described in the traditional vocabulary of school. This is a deep problem of games&learning not being equivalent to games&schooling. Spore wasn’t going to bridge that gap even if it was as educationally significant as advertised.

The problem I have is simpler than this.

The game is being promoted, mostly by National Geographic, as a game that teaches biology. Scientists were tricked into doing interviews that were used to promote the game as a way to learn biology. Shame on National Geographic for exploiting interest in games for learning to promote their programming.

As much as I understand the inclination to find the tiny nugget of learning in any game, I hope that Eric Klopfer and Kurt Squire would use their influence in the learning game community to address the issues of the misleading and patently false promotion of this game. Part 3, perhaps?


Flunking Spore – video game failed by scientists


The potential of video games for learning has been the subject of much recent curiosity and debate. How many times have you heard…“If only we could combine the engagement of video games with real (meaning school) learning…”

Spore is a new game that is being promoted as just such a hybrid. It’s the latest brainchild of Will Wright, the world-famous designer of unusual, yet popular games like The Sims and Sim City.

If anyone could design a breakout game that combines learning and fun, Will Wright is the guy.

Spore is a game where you create a single-cell organism that evolves. Keeping your creature alive and growing is the goal, and you can design and improve your creatures as generations go by and gain sophistication. Eventually they gain intelligence, and you have to deal with tribes and civilizations, deciding on war and peace, and eventually going out into outer space to explore and/or conquer whole worlds.

In an interview with National Geographic, Will Wright talks about, “…the breakthrough science that’s revealing the secret genetic machinery that shapes all life in the game Spore.” National Geographic has made a documentary, called “How to Build a Better Being” that is being sold by Spore publisher Electronic Arts in a deluxe version. (National Geographic website promoting the game.) The documentary positions Spore as solid science, complete with supporting interviews with scientists.

Now the bad news..
This month’s Science magazine (the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) decided to put this to the test. In Flunking Spore, author and “Gonzo Scientist” John Bohannon played Spore with evolutionary biologists, and concludes,

“…the problem isn’t just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong–it’s meant to be a game, after all–but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong.”

Anyone interested in games and education needs to read this article. It’s a wake-up call about this game’s relevance to education, and parallels much of the wishful thinking that dominates the games and education discussion.

And worse, when Bohannon went to interview the scientists who appeared in the National Geographic video, he found that they had not been told that their interviews were going to be used to promote a video game. He quotes Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who worries that science has been hijacked to promote a product. “I was used,” says Shubin.

After playing the game, the scientists Bohannon interviewed gave Spore failing grades across the board.

“Spore’s biology grades rolled in like a slow-motion train wreck. For organismic biology–genetics, cell biology, reproduction, and development–Gregory and Eldredge smacked Spore with a D-. The game flunked evolutionary biology outright with an F. According to Gregory and Eldredge, “Spore has very little to do with real biology.”

And it’s interesting to me that in a TED talk from March 2007, Will Wright demos Spore and makes no such claims. Who decided to push this as a game where you could learn about evolution and biology?

OK, so perhaps Spore isn’t going to change the way biology is taught in school, but does that mean that someday, someone, isn’t going to design a game that does? Trying to keep an open mind and never say never is always good policy, but when Will Wright fails, and the promotion is based on sleight-of-hand, if not blatant lies, it’s discouraging.

On Monday, my presentation for the online conference K12online 2008, Games and Education will go live and there is some discussion of the problem there. I’ll update this post with that link when it’s available.