Tag Archives: Education

Greetings and Salutations From SmartPlay’s New Author

throwback 300x201 Greetings and Salutations From SmartPlay’s New Author

Andrea and I back in the day wishing BinaryArts (ThinkFun’s original name) good luck at its launch.

Hello World! This is my debut post on the SmartPlay.com blog, so I figured I’d take a moment to introduce myself, share a little bit about what inspires me, and set some intentions about what you can expect from my posts moving forward.

A Little About Me

Some of you may know me as the CEO and Co-Founder of Thinkfun, the world’s leader in addictively fun games that build 21st century thinking skills through play. But I’m guessing that most of you may not know WHY I got into the game industry.
My lovely and inspiring wife, Andrea Barthello, and I founded ThinkFun on a dream. We wanted to change the world by translating the brilliant ideas of the craziest mathematicians, engineers and inventors into simple toys that could be appreciated by children of all ages. This was way back in 1985, and our name back then was BinaryArts (see our throwback photo that accompanies this post for visual aid).

In 2003, we changed our name from Binary Arts to ThinkFun and updated our mission to focus on the learning-through-play perspective. But not that much has changed since then. We still want to change the world, we just want to do it through play.

Lately, what I’m really enjoying is just how organically our newest games support some of the forward-thinking philosophies and curricula of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and STEAM (Science & Technology interpreted through Engineering & the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements) communities. If you don’t know much about these organizations yet, take a look at this video from Georgette Yakman, Founder/Teacher of STEAM.

A Little About Robot Turtles

So how does ThinkFun pay off our claim to ignite minds through play? Let’s take Robot Turtles as an example. The game sneakily teaches programming fundamentals to kids ages 3 and up and is the perfect expression of ThinkFun’s mission.

Robot Turtles players learn how to break one big problem into small steps, to think ahead, to work backwards, to look for patterns and to keep trying to fix their “bugs.”
 Playing is a lot like coding because:
• When a child lays down her cards, she is writing code.
• When a child rearranges his cards to fix what didn’t work, he is debugging.
• When a child discusses her strategy, she is commenting her code.
• When a child asks a parent to move the Turtle, he is running a program.
• When a child plays a Function Frog, she is executing a subroutine or a function.

I want to dive deeper into the mechanics here, but I’ll just share this 20 second video on how to play Robot Turtles instead, and wait until next week’s post to unpack the topic further.


A Little About What to Expect as the Blog Evolves

I plan on writing about once a week from now on, focusing on my take on the whacky world of creativity, problem solving and any general out-of-the-box thinking. I REALLY want to hear from you all as time goes on. What do you want to hear more about? What should I shut up about?

I’ll also reach out to some friends and colleagues to guest blog for me on these subjects from time to time, and I’ll do some “Greatest Hits” posts that bundle up a few of the fantastic posts from my SmartPlay blog predecessor, Charlotte Fixler.

Onward!

Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

blogPic 236x300 Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

Thinking Skills: Sigmund Freud Meets Apple Pie

For years I have been ranting about the American education system, how murky and ill prepared it is to consider new ideas. I gave a TEDx talk about this in 2012: one of my slides was a cartoon I had made to describe how profoundly confused the situation is.

Don’t worry if you don’t get this cartoon… you’re not supposed to. The idea is that it’s an enigma… something so ingrained you’re not sure if you are allowed to think that you don’t understand it.

The biggest thing gnawing at me the past few years has been the “HOW” question… this is such an important topic, how could things have gotten to be this way?

And so I was very happy to find the answer lurking inside an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post, about Bill Gates and the new Common Core education standards.

Says Gates: “The funding, in general, of what works in education… is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. … As a result, there is a paucity of information about methods of instruction that work.”

So why is it that I’ve had these murky, queasy feelings about education? Because it turns out the American Education system has the lowest R&D funding of any field of human endeavor! This starts to make sense now.

OK then… with this post I’ve dug a little bit into what the problem is. Next look for some solution ideas.

And do read the Washington Post piece. It turns out that Gates is using his millions to rebuild the entire USA education system, makes for a fascinating and revealing read.

Genetics… with a Zing!

The following guest post is shared by Allyson Zanetti, a biology teacher for at-risk students in a high school outside Detroit… the way she has taken Zingo!, a game originally designed for preschoolers, and transformed it into a tool to teach the principles of genetics is incredible!

IMG 1207web 300x225 Genetics... with a Zing!

Genetics with a Zing!

Teaching at-risk high school students can be a challenge, but it is a job I adore. I begin this school year with much enthusiasm especially eager to use the Think Fun Zingo! Bingo with a Zing games that were generously donated to my classroom for a genetics assignment. Yes, genetics – I teach high school biology at Southgate Adult and Community education, an award winning school for at-risk youth in suburban Detroit.

Often teachers think that all of the fun and games occurs in the elementary grades or that pretending needs to be left in preschool. Well, that attitude is not prevalent in my school. Many of the teachers are incredibly creative bringing complicated physics topics to life with Hot Wheel cars or playing dice to explain algebraic equations.

I use my colleagues as an inspiration trying to think of ways to make high school biology fun. I can hear some you gasp and moan at the thought of looking through a microscope, dissecting a frog or learning about DNA. I understand that science is not for everyone, but for me it is the most interesting field there is and I want all of my students to see the wonder in the natural world, too.

Teaching genetics is a complicated topic. The introduction is usually one my students dive into with gusto. They like finding out why they have brown eye and their brother has blue eyes or why they can roll their tongue to look like a straw and their lab partner can’t. However, their gusto quickly wanes as words like dihybrid cross and heterozygous recessive come into play. In the past, I talked about Gregor Mendel and his pea plants with passion, but their eyes would glaze over. The concepts of genetic ratios went in one ear and out the other and their test scores showed that I was not teaching that topic in an effective way. What could I do to help them understand Mendelian genetics? We talked about roosters and their combs on top of their heads and white cats with long tails and brown cats with short tails, but they still looked at me as if I was speaking a languae they did not understand.

One evening while playing Zingo with my son, I realized that there is an aspect of probability to the game and that I could use it to teach genetics. I dove into modifying the game to be used as a manipulative in my classroom. I put labels on the backs of the plastic game pieces and then brought it to school.

My students huddled around the single game and watched as I showed them the possibilities that would occur if a short- tailed, white cat mated with a brown longed-tailed cat. Students created data sheets for keeping track of the tail lengths and color of the cats.

IMG 1206web 300x225 Genetics... with a Zing!After 16 pulls, the students tallied their results. We talked about probability and they discussed what happened. We did the cross a second, third and forth time still collecting data. Students cheered when we got a long-tailed white cat and we laughed when occasionally a shoe or a panda tile would pop up because we had accidentally put the tile in upside down. We joked that cats could have a long-tailed panda baby or a brown shoe.

After the fun with the Zingo! game, my students dove into other Punnett squares with enthusiasm and asked to use the Zinger to make other games related to pea plants and roses. They used information from our text book and pretended to mate a Wyandotte rooster with a Brahamas hen, each time pulling the Zingo tile dispenser back and forth to expose the gamete possibilities. They even wanted to use the Zinger to make a vocabulary matching game. To my surprise, dihybrid cross and heterozygous were included in their list.

The game was passed around and the sound of the Zinger clicking back and forth became the sound of learning. I was thrilled. I had taught them a complicated topic in genetics and they actually enjoyed it. They were not moaning or staring at me like I was speaking Chinese. Happily, their test scored improved, too. I felt successful and I loved that a game made for 4 or 5 year olds could teach my high school students a complicated genetics topic.

IMG 1204web 300x225 Genetics... with a Zing!

Knowing I needed more games, I contacted ThinkFun, and they kindly donated six Zingo games to my classroom. I spent the summer modifying each game into our Mendelian genetics game – Genetics with a Zing! and I even changed some of the tiles into a vocabulary bingo games. There are 72 tiles in each game which is plenty to use for a variety of activities. I can’t wait to hear the click-click, click-click of the ZInger in my classroom. Zingo! is synonymous with learning in my biology classroom and it has really ignited the minds of my students. See, play is not just for preschool or first grade. My 17 year old students can play and learn at the same time.

Here are the directions of what I did to modify the game and a few fun photos of the game in action.

I used this information to do a cross in which a short tail (S) is dominant to a long tail (s) and brown hair (B) is dominant to white (w). The cross became SsBb x SsBb.

Next, I created 8-SB tiles, 8-Sb, 8-sB, and 8-sb by using my label maker and sticking the labels onto the backs of 32 to the tiles. I shuffled the tiles and placed them into the Zinger with the genetics sides facing up making sure half of the tiles are on one side and half are on the other. I pulled the Zinger back to reveal two tiles. I recorded what the offspring would look like remembering to convert the letter code into a type of cat. For example, ssBB is a long-tailed, brown cat. I did this 16 times total and recorded what the animal would look like each time. I then tallied the results which prompted more questions like: What is the most common looking cat? Can those cats have a long-tailed, white kitten? Did I get the 9:3:3:1 ratio that Mendel predicted? Why or why not? What is probability?

Have you ever modified a favorite game to use for a different purpose? To teach or explain something? Please share you story!

 

Take it from a middle school teacher – playing MathDice makes math FUN!

Who knew 5 ilttle dice could bring math to life – and make it so fun?! I love this story shared by Christan Martin, a Gifted Teacher at Colonial Heights Middle School in Virginia!

 

Enter Room 121. Students are seated at desks facing the chalkboard. The teacher stands at the front of the room working math problems. You hear only the teacher’s voice, and you notice glassy eyes and expressionless faces on the students. That was before MathDice

 Take it from a middle school teacher   playing MathDice makes math FUN!

One day, Mrs. Carter asked if I would like to teach a few lessons on mental math strategies. Having just received 100 new sets of MathDice from ThinkFun, I knew I had just the activity for her class. I explained to her the rules of the game and the skills and concepts to be developed with the activities. Mrs. Carter was very skeptical. Games in math class? And not on a “reward day” or after a test? Hmmm…

 

Monday morning, I entered Room 121 and asked the students to use three given numbers and any operations to create expressions close to equal to a given target number, and oh yeah, without using a pencil and paper. Students were baffled. They had never been asked to solve a problem that had more than one right answer. They seldom were asked to solve a problem without showing their work. After a few minutes, I asked students to share their thinking, not their answers. Finally, after discussing the different strategies students used to solve the problem, students were asked to share their answers. The glassy eyes were beginning to disappear.

 

Next, I explained to the students that they would use the same strategies to solve problems during class, but instead of solving problems in a textbook, they would play a game. Students perked up! After explaining the game, discussing the materials to be used, and playing a couple of practice rounds as a class, students were ready to play! Partners were chosen and MathDice packs were handed out. Students were on their way!

 

As I walked around the room, I saw students solving math problems in different ways. They began using numbers flexibly to create expressions. Most importantly, they were excited about math! No longer was the teacher the only one speaking. The room was filled with voices excitedly shouting out answers and explaining their strategies to one another.

 

By the end of the week, Mrs. Carter was just as excited as the students. She saw how playing MathDice and completing the MathDice activities was not only fun for the students, but it was also a learning opportunity for students. Students were using mental math strategies, just like she wanted. Mrs. Carter began to see that games and hands-on activities were not just for Fun Fridays or to fill the time after a test. Instead, they are a way to build enthusiasm and motivation about mathematics and to provide students with opportunities for discovery, critical thinking, as well as problem solving using multiple operations, exponents, and even fractions — mentally!

 

Now enter Room 121. Students are engaged. Students are sharing strategies with one another as they sit in pairs or groups all over the classroom. The teacher circulates around the room listening to students and asking questions to encourage critical thinking and flexible use of numbers. The glassy eyes and expressionless faces have been replaced with smiles and bright eyes as math class has become a place to not only solve problems but to also have fun! Let’s thank MathDice!

ThinkFun Games Ignite Minds in a 7th Grade Math Class!

This story is shared by Lori Mullarkey, an incredible 7th Grade Math Teacher in Nebraska City!

 

Because so many students feel defeated before even giving math a chance in 7th grade, my classroom philosophy is to encourage students to like math more at the end of the year than at the beginning. I have found that doing several hands-on activities and giving time for problem solving games does just this! ThinkFun games help students feel a sense of mastery in math which they have seldom had before. The beginner levels meet students where they are at and give them a sense of accomplishment as they pass each challenge. Students continue to be challenged as they move through the leveled cards. I have several students who are proud and excited to tell me that they just passed every card in the deck!

 ThinkFun Games Ignite Minds in a 7th Grade Math Class!

My first experience with Think Fun Games was at a High Ability Learner’s (HAL) conference. One of the sessions focused entirely on problem solving through single player games. They walked us through the general plot of each game and simply gave us time to play. It was only a few minutes before I realized I was addicted myself and had to have these games! I knew that all my students, not just my gifted learners, would love playing these games. I hoped that these games would help my at-risk students find some fun and motivation in school (even if it was from problem solving games), so I purchased a small handful just to test them out in my room. The result has been amazing and I soon had a wish list a mile long for my classroom!

 

As the year progressed, I noticed that students would ask to play the games as soon as they entered the room. As other students began watching, they too would start begging to play and “calling” particular games at the beginning of the period. Knowing I did not have enough games for each student, I told students once their assignment was completed, they could choose a game for the remainder of class. Once all the games were chosen, they could play quietly in partners. Sure enough, I had almost all of my students focused on finishing their homework in order to play the game of their choice! Our MathCounts club also loved them so much we began fundraising in order to purchase more games for the room.

 

Over the past 2 years, I have collected nearly 40 different single player games and created a small problem solving station in my room. In addition to the games, I also purchased a cube storage unit with 5 different drawers. Each drawer is a particular type of game. Drawer 1: Navigation Station: Rush Hour, Roadside Rescue, Stormy Seas, etc. Drawer 2: Shape It Up: Shape by Shape, Block By Block, Square By Square, Tangrams, etc. Drawer 3: More Think Fun Games: Games that were created by Think Fun but I didn’t have enough of the same type to designate a drawer. Drawer 4: Educational Insight Games (similar to those of Think Fun), Drawer 5: Other: for smaller brainteasers (think fun also has several of these). Since these are designed to be single-player games, students simply take them back to their desk to play once their assignment is finished. There is also an eight-foot table in the back of our room for when partners or small groups want to work on a game together.

 

At the beginning of this year, I took a class period to explain the problem solving behind each game to all of my classes. Students were told that once they completed their assignment they may ask and select a game to play for the remainder of the period. About once a quarter, or before holidays, we have a problem solving day instead of having class. I set a game on each desk, and students shift over one seat every 10 minutes trying the various games in their row. At the end of the period, we spend time discussing the problem solving used in various games and students discuss how they would rate particular games.

 

I also am the sponsor for our MathCounts club, and students frequently request problem solving game days! The eighth grade students involved in MathCounts said they joined just for the problem solving games and the sixth grade students also love the chance to play them. Since there are not as many students as a typical class, we can focus a day on geometry and do the shape puzzles, or have a rush hour morning instead of practicing math problems. They simply can’t get enough!

 

Classroom favorites include: any of the Rush Hours, Shape by Shape, Roadside Rescue, 36 Cube, Hot Spot, and Chocolate Fix. As said before, most students stick with a particular game until they have mastered all of the cards. These games not only challenge kids, but my husband and I master a card at each level before bringing them to school for the students to play.

A 5th Grade Math Teacher Uses Games to Motivate All Learners!

This post is shared by Bryan D. Williams, a 5th Grade Math Teacher in Washington, D.C.

 

Much has been written about playing games in the classroom. There have been numerous articles that speak to the powerful ways that games can motivate students to be more engaged in the teaching and learning process. Other articles have talked about how games can be used to reinforce skills and concepts already learned, review skills and concepts that are currently being covered, or be a preview of what is coming up. Problem solving games in particular provide students an opportunity to develop and strengthen problem solving strategies. In addition, as students work together and play various games in the classroom, they are learning from each other and developing multiple strategies to help them become increasingly more effective problem solvers and more accomplished mathematicians.

 A 5th Grade Math Teacher Uses Games to Motivate All Learners!

Bryan's game shelf!

As a classroom teacher, I have seen how the use of games in the classroom can provide a fun and non-threatening environment to help students develop and strengthen problem solving strategies. Over the past five years, I have worked in schools that had a core mathematics curriculum that emphasized the use of games to help reinforce skills and concepts being taught throughout the year. The range of games, the challenge that they provided, and the ability to work with the fellow classmates was all the motivation they needed. While students worked together, it was amazing listening to the kinds of conversations that were sparked by collaborative and at times the competitive nature of the games being played. Having students engaged in these kinds of meaningful activities also allowed me an opportunity to pull small groups or individual students to help provide more individualized instruction.

 

 

Many of the games being played would be out and available for students to use throughout the day. Our daily schedule included free choice time and, when other assignments were completed, choosing to play a game with a friend was almost always an option. The ability to make choices like these in the classroom became very empowering for my students, and they took the responsibility seriously requiring very little support. Many of the games being played were also differentiated and could be used as remediation, review, or extension. The games became an integral part of our classroom and my students benefited greatly from the experience.

ThinkFun’s GridWorks Game Enriches a High School Math Class Curriculum!

This fantastic story is shared by Lisa Kosanovic, a Math Teacher at Holyoke High School in Massachusetts.

 

I teach high school math in the sixth poorest community in the nation, and for us, math class is too often about passing our state’s standardized tests. While many of my students lack basic skills, I often see a high level of reasoning and problem-solving skills that I want to develop and encourage.

 ThinkFun’s GridWorks Game Enriches a High School Math Class Curriculum!

Several years ago, I bought ThinkFun’s GridWorks game for my own children, who loved it. Soon thereafter, I was working through a state test problem with one of my Algebra I classes, and I realized that the problem drew on exactly the same skills that GridWorks did! After several attempts to recreate the game using overhead transparencies, I contacted ThinkFun and asked if they could send me sets of the GridWorks pieces. I knew that if I had a set for each student, I could simply put the challenges on the chalkboard using colored chalk, and my students could work the problems at their desks.

 

What a success! Even the most reluctant of my students enjoyed using this game, and several came up to me after class to talk about it. One of my Pre-calculus students said she was pleasantly surprised by how much she had to think on the most challenging puzzles (I put 10 challenges on the boards around my room, including the two most difficult), and by how much fun it was to think hard in that way. Another student with serious attention issues insisted on starting with the most difficult problem, and he worked diligently through an entire class period. When he did not finish the problem, he asked if he could come back during the next class to finish, and when he returned, he stayed with the problem until it was completed correctly!

 

My only regret is that there are not books and books of GridWorks challenges! With GridWorks, I saw many otherwise-unengaged students using math skills to solve problems, and enjoying themselves at the same time. I will use this with my students every year to teach them problem-solving skills and show them that math can be fun!

Feed Your Students Brain Candy!

This email just made my day – as a former teacher, I get such a thrill knowing our games and puzzles are not only encouraging students to open their minds, they’ve become the carrot (or in this case – candy!) that students looks forward to!  When brain-building games feel more like PLAY and less like work, I say mission accomplished!

 

Choco 1530 HiResSpill 300x300 Feed Your Students Brain Candy!

Mmmm, Brain Candy!

 

“I know this is taking up valuable time; however, I’d like to let you know that I encourage lateral and spatial thinking as well in my science classes.  I teach junior high and high school science at a small school in Nebraska.  I have a total of 66 students in 6 different science classes; my largest class has 17 and my smallest has 3. 

I try to incorporate my personally-owned ThinkFun games on days that I can accomodate the most students.  There are some days that more than half the class is gone for activities or it’s a shortened day before a holiday.  I want the kids to still be engaged, so I have come up with “Brain Candy” days where they get a “day off” of regular work, but they have the opportunity to stimulate their brains with ThinkFun “candy”.  Thank you for having products that will fit my philosophy!”

Arts in Education Week: Celebrate Creativity in the Classroom!

It’s rarely a tough sell to convince parents and teachers that our kids need more exposure to the arts, but the  past several years has seen these valuable programs all but disappear in many schools.   Which makes it all the more encouraging to learn that this past July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 275 establishing this week, September 12-18, 2010, as the first annual Arts in Education Week across the country!

This resolution recognizes the critical connection between the arts, education, imagination, and 21st-century economic success, and declares that, “arts education… is a core academic subject and an essential element of a complete and balanced education for all students.”

Recently, the US fell out of the top 10 in Newsweek’s 100 best countries, and related studies show this decline as particularly significant in the realm of education.  Interestingly, this happens as countries like China and Singapore are gradually moving away from rote learning, fearing that their pupils are not being adequately prepared to tackle new 21st century challenges.   As these systems explore ways to develop critical thinking in the classroom, many feel US schools are reverting toward these traditional “drill-and-kill” model as other counties are backing away.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and fear that the next generation of US thinkers are ill-equipped to compete in the 21st century was arguably the driving force behind this Resolution, which states, “as the Nation works to strengthen its foothold in the 21st century global economy, the arts equip students with a creative, competitive edge.”

Whatever the impetus for this kick-in-the-pants focus on the arts, if it means more creativity, imagination, and problem solving in schools, I’ll take it!

While celebrating “the Arts” is a wonderful message, a week during the school year is a drop in the bucket as far as real, meaningful change is concerned.  Instead, view this week as a kick start to draw attention to arts education in our schools, building momentum for the school year.  This national movement has the potential to produce impactful results at the local level!

Is your school doing enough?  Here are some ways to get involved in your own community!

FIRST Robotics Tournament

This past weekend I volunteered as a judge in the New Jersey Regional FIRST Robotics Tournament.  Sixty one teams competed, coming from as far away as Brazil.  The competition was played in three-team alliances, alliances playing against each other to shoot soccer balls through goals with some significant wrinkles thrown in.   The tournament lasts two full days.  Team objectives are to win the tournament and go on to the national championship, and also to compete for more than a dozen FIRST awards celebrating both technical achievement and team attributes.  These are presented at closing ceremonies each day.

The game rules this year were more different from past years than normal, which meant that veteran teams had to change their robots more, to make more fundamental design decisions, than what they were accustomed to.  Early rumors from the practice field were that teams were struggling, that a lot of things weren’t working… and the first matches were indeed low scoring without much action.  Some of us wondered whether the changes had gone too far, if and how the players could adapt during the course of competition.

These issues hit the judges square on during our Saturday working lunch, when we caucused about that day’s engineering quality awards.  What to do with well designed machines that met most of the criteria for an award, but that hadn’t worked on the field?  Would they be performing by day’s end or not?

We needn’t have worried.  Teams scouted the field to learn best practices, shared information, worked together, analyzed and adapted, and the quality of play went through the roof.  In the end the judges struggled this year with too much excellence, we had more teams deserving awards than we had awards to give.

FIRST robotics 1 225x300 FIRST Robotics Tournament

We had grand debates as well.  Should the Entrepreneurship Award go to the young team with the big vision, the experienced team that was rededicating itself to greater service or the team whose written business plan most clearly articulated their plan?  Should the Quality award go to the simple machine that performed at outstanding levels, the more versatile robot that had mastered several game skills or the robot that had outstanding machine quality features but was average on pit quality & team integration?

In the end it was an outstanding experience all around.  If you want to discover the best of young America, get to know more about FIRST!