Physical Mechanics in School

Physical Mechanics in School

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11/16/2017

One function of grade school is to learn basic life skills and concepts. In the Common Core, the basic skills outlined in the Physical Sciences section is roughly equivalent to the skills defined for the same age group in curriculums all around the world (we checked!). These basic skills include kinematics, energy and its constant nature and understanding simple machines. Further, students need to learn what matter is and how constants such as gravity function.

All of the above concepts can be very abstract, especially for younger students. What is one to do? Read on to find out!

In my home in the 90s we had a computer, but the rest of the family rarely played games on it. One of the few games that we all played together was The Incredible Machine, where the player could design a simple machine. Essentially, the game series is an excellent Rube Goldberg machine simulator. A good example of a machine in the game is the following: gravity causes a basketball to fall downward, scaring a hamster, which runs, powering up a conveyor belt which transports a candle underneath a paper lantern. The lantern pulls the rope and drops a bone for a dog.

Luckily, the game’s creator Kevin Ryan has not been idle of late, either. His newest game Contraption Maker is a spiritual successor to The Incredible Machine. The game is well-suited for everyone and all ages, making the creation of simple machines that display basic physical concepts a hassle-free experience.

Contraption Maker

Modern game research can partially explain why Contraption Maker is such a good game: cognitive observational psychology uses the term “epistemic games”, which means the simulation of the same practices that professionals utilize in real life. The activities are automatically reflected, which makes it easier to learn from your own mistakes.

In the 2000s, computer games have been begun to be analyzed based on their epistemic patterns, including by Finnish game researchers. Describing Computer-Augmented Games in Terms of Interaction (Lundgren & Björk 2003) suggests that games would be reviewed based on their design structure.

A Strategy for Analyzing Digital Epistemic Games (Haworth & Sedig 2011) considers several games, categorizing games such as The Incredible Machine and Civilization IV based on epistemic models. According to them, the strongest models found in The Incredible Machine were organization and combination, whereas collecting, choices and searching were supporting models. Models depict how the games encourage thinking. If, for instance, a game included nothing but collecting, it would quickly become very tedious.

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In Civilization IV, none of the many elements in the game strongly stand out. Rather, the game offers many kinds of cognitive exercises (perhaps explaining why it is one of the most successful game series ever made!)

In a nutshell, gaming improves thinking and learning depending on the content of the game. To take advantage of this learning in the classroom, combine traditional classroom teaching with gaming. Games can make it far easier to visualize difficult and abstract concepts, such as physical mechanics. Many curriculums also emphasize the ability to innovate. All of these skills can be improved with Contraption Maker, alongside curriculum content.

Gravity, energy, kinematics and simple machines: what is a better way to teach them but to show them to the students in practice?

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