Friday, February 19, 2010

World of Mathcraft?!

  Imagine your avatar immersed in a complex world in which mathematics is the greatest weapon, in which you can "turn the world off", sit down to build a new virtual tool with other players, and pick up again when you are ready to test the workability of your new tool.  Mathematician Keith Devlin thinks that such a game is entirely feasible, and could be a new way to attract students to mathematics.  Unfortunately, he also thinks that to develop such a game might be an expensive undertaking -- on the order of $100 million.  "But if we think of this as a national initiative then compared to Apollo it's not so expensive."
    Why should this be a national initiative?  The slide above was an illustration that 98% of students' responses to mathematical questions are correct when the questions are posed in a context relevant to the students' everyday lives while the students correctly answered only 37% of the SAME questions in a paper and pencil exam.  So one argument for creating math-based games for learning is that they have the potential to replicate the physical experience of using mathematics in everyday life much more effectively than typical textbook problems. Linguist James Paul Gee looks at textbooks as analogous to the dry manuals that accompany games, pointing out that "If you play the game you cannot fail to understand the manual."  Furthermore, he distinguishes between quality games and "skill and drill", saying "If we keep doing skill and drill, the only class your kids will care about is Mandarin."  However, he acknowledges that many of the people playing technical games are upper class, and that for a game to be successful as an educational tool, there must be an accompanying social network to which players can rely for mentorship and camaraderie.  Some of the games mentioned that you can learn about and try on-line were:

  • Portal -- a game that builds ones physical intuition
  • Fold-it  (Zoran Popovic )-- a game that helps researchers better understand protein folding
  • The products of Dream Box , a company whose CEO, Lou Gray, spoke in the session and whose products have been influenced by the research of math educators like Cathy Fosnot
But how can students really appreciate the mathematics behind the game itself?  Professor Frank Wattenberg has his students build simple games or models themselves in which they can see the relevance of exponential decay and differential equations up close and personal.  Similarily, Professor Brianno Coller teaches students the basics of control theory by having them learn to "steer" a virtual car -- you can see the simulations he uses on his website.  
     Commenting on the importance of understanding the nuts and bolts of mathematical models (including their limitations), Dr. Wattenberg commented that to update the old saying "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn Lies, and statistics", many people would replace the word statistics with "modeling".  Perhaps when viewing games as a component of education, it is key to recognize that games themselves are models-- useful models that can enhance our understanding of reality.

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