How ‘Reacting to the Past’ helps address present-day problems

This week’s readings for GEDI F18 focused on engaging and inspiring students through the use of problem-based learning and gamification. I found the article by Mark Carnes, History professor at Barnard College, most interesting. The article describes how Dr. Carnes, with the help of hundreds of scholars, created an elaborate series of games called “Reacting to the Past” that has elicited such positive responses from students that the students:

(1) were discussing the games for hours after class

(2) were passionate and dedicated to their roles in the game

(3) volunteered to come early to class to continue to play the games.

This example shows that even if students aren’t necessarily learning the prescribed course material (though they should be through the game), this pedagogical practice is engaging and helps the students learn to solve problems and work in teams, which are important skills to master.

One of the readings mentioned (though I can’t figure out which one now) that gamifying the sciences is easy (paraphrased). My thought is that any game that is effective at meeting a desired goal is challenging to develop, no matter the subject. For example, as Carnes describes, it took hundreds of experts to create “Reacting to the Past.” I can imagine that to produce an effective educational game it does require the knowledge and creativity of many different people. Like Robert Talbert says, students learn more when they have access to an expert’s experiences, thought processes, and learned mental models. What then could be better than having access to all of those experts embedded in a single game?

I started looking into the efforts being made to use gamification in Chemistry education. A quick Google search produced fewer results than I expected. I found one recent article in the Journal of Chemical Education that discussed the use of gamification to help students understand the concept of limiting reagents in stoichiometry. (I should add that the title of the article is “Clash of Chemists: A Gamified Blog To Master the Concept of Limiting Reagent Stoichiometry,” (which relates back to last week’s discussion on blogging.) The game asked students to come up with an analogy to represent the difference between stoichiometric and nonstoichiometric conditions, e.g., if you have 4 pieces of bread and 2 cups of peanut butter you can only make 2 peanut butter sandwiches because you’re limited by the 4 pieces of bread (assuming each sandwich is made of 2 pieces of bread). By the way, this is an example of a nonstoichiometric condition because you have excess peanut butter (assuming you put less than 1 cup of peanut butter on your sandwich). The game involved points and competition among peers. The feedback from students who participated in the game was generally positive and these students performed better in the class on average relative to their classmates. I liked this simple approach to a complex problem that is usually challenging for students to comprehend.

Thus, here is a list of the general chemistry topics. I don’t think anyone else in the class is a chemist, however everyone is required to take general chemistry. Does anyone remember a mental model, story, or have an idea/experience that could help students understand one of these topics? Or maybe add a game idea for a topic in your own field.

  • Acids, Bases and pH
  • Atomic Structure
  • Electrochemistry
  • Units and Measurement
  • Thermochemistry
  • Chemical Bonding
  • Periodic Table
  • Equations and Stoichiometry
  • Solutions and Mixtures

10 Replies to “How ‘Reacting to the Past’ helps address present-day problems”

  1. Hi Kristen, the Chemistry game and the output (performing better in class compared to others) is an interesting example you brought up. I also share the same thought that it would be worthwhile to render a complex scientific problem into simple and fun task through developing games for the educational purpose. BTW, I’ve not taken any chemistry courses at the college, and the last one goes back to the high school years! Anyway, I think emerging technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) are good candidates for engaging the students more for better learning outcome. Not sure though about the opportunities that could relate to the chemistry field.

    • Hey Milad, thanks for commenting. I know there are “online” chemistry labs that are like VR. Though I have not heard much positive feedback about these. I look forward to learning more about VR and gamification in class tonight.

  2. Hey Kristen!

    I love that you are embracing gamefication in Chemistry! I didn’t follow that path, but I did enjoy it when I was taking Chemistry courses. I wish I had a good story to share about my chemistry experience (I’m sure there were games, but I can’t think on any now.) I remember a demo about chemical bonds that involved people going to the front and coming together to make simple compounds based on valence electrons…but my memory on how that activity really went gets fuzzy right about there.

    BUT I will say, and this may be typical for an organic chem final, my prof had us all ID an organic compound as our final exam in that class. We had a couple of hours worth of lab time to do it in–or longer, I can’t remember–but I DO remember that it was really cool to get to practice all the little experiments and walk through the steps on my own to figure out what it was I was in charge of identifying. I guess that is more of a puzzle; still, it was a lot of fun.

    Good luck on this search for teaching tools! I would be very interested to hear more about what you discover!

    • Hey Sara, thanks for sharing your experience in OChem. I think it’s great that it was a memorable experience! I definitely did not do something like that for my Ochem final.

  3. Ok, this is kind of half-baked, but off the top of my head, what about some sort of points-based game where you could “level up” as an electron, and move farther away from the nucleus? You could also recruit others to join your atom and, as you added more, you or your team would become different elements, with the goal of getting to the most un-un-unobtainium or whatever largest and most unstable element you chemists have discovered recently.

  4. As somebody who really struggled with certain subjects in school (looking at you, math!), I found games to be so beneficial in my own learning. While I see how people may be quick to talk about how helpful games are for STEM fields, if I may I’d like to suggest that games are integral to the humanities as well! I wish my chemistry professor in undergrad had utilized this type of digital learning to help me out, I’d love to see any ideas you come up with!

    • I agree with your comment about games being integral to the humanities. I think that if my history teachers had made learning about the past a game, I would have been much more interested in the subject. So far, I have incorporated one game into my analytical chemistry class. To discuss accuracy, precision, and significant figures, I’ve had my students play a simplified version of beer pong where the students take turns tossing pompoms into a cup.

  5. Well, I can start by saying that I have not taken Chemistry since my junior year of high school, so you probably don’t want me creating the game for you, but…

    The importance of games–engaging ones at that–is far more difficult in some subjects. Chemistry, for example, is such dense and technical material that it would be difficult to come up with a good game, especially one that can be applied to many different times of content, as you listed.

    I also think about games in general. We all have our favorites, but not everyone likes every game, so the one-size-fits-all approach does not work here. Regardless, anything that engages the mind to further learning is definitely ideal, but it takes a significant amount of work to do so!

    • Hey Kathleen, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I like that you point out that Chemistry is dense and technical because the way Chemistry is typically taught, through chalk-talk lectures, often leaves students with that feeling. However, Chemistry is also very visual and hands-on. We can actually explain to students many of the technical concepts using really cool demonstrations. That is also one of the goals of the lab courses. However, students overlook the value of these experiences because the labs are designed as cookbook experiments instead of experiential learning activities.

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