Gamification: Problem Based Learning Repackaged?

On the first day of our unit on electricity three weeks ago, Lori and I told the students the following prompt:

"You and your group members are on a mission to Mars. Your job is to build a remote controlled rover to perform a task like collect soil from the planet, deliver a payload to a colony of explorers, or do a search and rescue. Our learning of electricity and your understanding of it will be vital to learning how to accomplish this task."

Modelling circuits in Drawings

And so it began. Not only a project based, but a problem based approach to learning with the end goal in mind from day 1. My partner and I used this backwards design approach and developed a short unit on electricity with an engineering component and tech tools for designing (Google Drawings) and formative assessments after lessons (Google Forms for quizzes and Infuse Learning for post lesson evaluation) Lori Uemura, being the flipped classrooom guru of our school was kind enough to make and record presentations with video lectures for our students which we both used to "front load" learning before the students came into class. When they did, they didn't practice lighting up light bulbs on chintzy circuit boards, they made a circuit that was vital to their project and powered one of their electric motors.

Presenting circuits for peer review

I came in with a different angle. I gathered the materials and developed a project rubric and was in charge of assessments.Working together, Lori and I were able to cut the work load in half and make better quality presentations and better quality assessments. Our standards were pretty loose and didn't specify all of the electrical components that we needed to use, so we thought we should just focus on the basic parts that would be useful for this given task. As this was our first time teaching this unit, we would reflect afterward on changes for next year.

Soldering connections
Gamification Enters
Once students had the content and skills, they were able to synthesize what they learned and apply it to this creative endeavor. Our technology assessments allowed us to intervene and help groups that were struggling to stay on task and the authenticity of the problem made it more compelling to the students. I was inspired by Sal Khan's use of data and Paul Anderson's approach to playing and being creative for real learning. Although I supplied all of the electrical components, tape and balsa wood for the frame, students still needed to supply their own wheels. Students peppered me with questions such as "What should I use as wheels?" to which I inquired: "What material do you want your wheels to be made out of?" and "What's your ideal diameter considering the diameter of the motor?"

Putting on Wheels
Suddenly, math becomes relevant. Students start connecting the perimeter of the frame with an increase to wheelbase and the fact that a larger frame may not be the best. They dispute whether metal or plastic wheels would be better and wrestle with the best way to attach them to the metal axles. How is this all gamification might you ask? I believe it meets meets many of requirements that advocates of gamification argue are essential for real world learning. The first is persistence. Students learn by trial and error how a circuit works and trouble shoot their wiring and circuitry. There was also a progress report as indicated by rubrics which could have been "badges". Finally, each student has a unique skill set such as technical skills, leadership or steady hands. James Paul Gee and Jane McGonigal discuss how such tasks are springboards for adult learning communities where skill sets are developed, marketed and sold.

What We Learned
My teaching partner and I learned so much through this project, and as groups settle into the last stage of their project, I think of the following things and how we can improve upon them next year:

  1. It helps to have volunteers. We didn't anticipate the number of problems that groups would have and despite ample demonstrations (and perhaps deliberatly leaving some things vague) we were often barraged for help. Mr. Hunt and Mr. Minh were a big help every day along the way. 
  2. Persistance grows when the end is in sight. I noticed that some groups were close to desperation early on but once they got started and invested their time and effort into the project, re-motivating them was something we had to do less and less. 
  3. Struggle is essential to learning. So often did I get asked a question to which would ask the group a redirecting question to really get them thinking about the task. This frustrated many groups, hoping I would simply give them "the answer" or show them "how to do it". To quote Fredrick Douglass: "Without struggle, there is no progress". 
  4. Young adults don't approach a task the same as educated adults. When our students started, some groups did a better job of collectively sharing opinions and ideas. Some just had an alpha student that charged ahead with directions. It was important to coach the students through the group working process to ensure that all members were involved.

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