Making Simulation Games for Education: Emergent Systems

What makes an educational game work? What keeps the wheels spinning in a player’s head, keeps them engaged and learning? Well, if you’ve read my other musings, you’d probably be quick to suggest it’s the same principles that make commercial games successful. While this is certainly true, it’s not the most informative advice. I thought it would be useful to get a little more specific and concrete by reflecting on my experience designing Iridescent’s newest physics simulation game, The Gravity Ether.

So we’ll talk about simulation games, the genre which seems to have the most educational promise.  And we’ll talk about the principle key to making a simulation game work: emergent complexity.

Meaningful interactions through emergent complexity

In their landmark book Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman argue that game design is really about meaningful interactions.  A game is successful and engaging when it creates meaningful interactions for its players. Now, there are many ways to create meaningful interactions, which is why their book is so long, and also why we have so many different genres of games. For a simulation game, interactions tend to be meaningful when the simulation has emergent complexity.

What is emergent complexity*? In an emergently complex system, there is a relatively simple set of rules or interactions that govern the nature of the simulation, but the way that those rules play out leads to interesting patterns and processes that “emerge” from the simulation. An emergently complex simulation thus has elements and patterns that are not immediately obvious from the rules alone, which makes exploring and manipulating those unexpected patterns a very meaningful interaction. The fact that the underlying rules are pretty simple makes it easy for a player to understand the basics of the simulation, so the game doesn’t feel random and out of their control. But the number of elements and variety of interactions between them is complex enough to lead to surprises and a somewhat unpredictable end result.  The real challenge in a simulation game is including enough complexity so that the game doesn’t feel predictable, but not so much complexity that the game feels random.  That ideal middle ground is emergent complexity.

Salen and Zimmerman also note that uncertainty is vital for meaningful interactions: at a very basic level we only want to play games in which there is an uncertainty about whether or not we will win. Why play a game you know you will win? Randomness in games, like dice rolls, can create uncertainty.  But more important than having actual randomness is having a feeling of randomness. This is exactly the case for emergent complexity–none of the patterns that emerge from a complex system are truly random, but because they can’t be predicted by the typical player they feel a bit random.  This gives emergently complex games an edge or feeling of uncertainty, which helps craft meaningful interactions.

* Note: the Intelligent Design folks have co-opted the term emergent complexity for their own purposes. Their use of the term is not related to its use here.

Case Study: Angry Birds

So let’s switch to Angry Birds for a second.  This game achieved success because it hit emergent complexity on the head.  Other projectile motion games tended to be too simple and predictable.  There is some complexity in choosing the angle and direction at which you launched an object.  And there is some complexity to how blocks fall.  But it wasn’t nearly complex enough, and the games felt too predictable.  So Angry Birds added the extra element, the tapping on the screen to make the bird do something crazy.  Since you could tap at any point in the trajectory to initiate the bird’s crazy motion, an interesting interplay is added between the type of trajectory you choose and when in the trajectory you activate the bird’s ability. It was often unclear how these two interactions would play out, requiring you to try it to find out.  This added more complexity to the way you knocked down the structures, creating a game with more meaningful interactions.

Case Study: The Gravity Ether

Of course, creating crazy bird motions that defy laws of physics is not the only way to add complexity to a system. In the Ethers game series that we are producing here at Iridescent, we limit our search to natural phenomena when adding complexity to a system.  Physics on its own is ripe with emergently complex systems.  For example, we have the three-body problem in classical mechanics. Although from the Universal Law of Gravity it is quite easy to predict the motion of two planets, adding a third planet to the mix makes simple predictions of motion nearly impossible. Each planet depends on the position and motion of the other two planets to determine its own motion.  But its own motion will also affect the position and motion of the other two planets, creating a system which is too complex to be solved for. There are regular patterns that emerge from the interaction of these planets, but those patterns are results of emergent complexity, rather than easily predicable phenomena.

We used this existing emergent complexity in gravitation forces to create The Gravity Ether. In this game, a player can create and remove black holes with a tap of their finger. These black holes cause gravitational fields which affect the motion of planets. By correctly manipulating the motion of planets, players can achieve simple level objectives, like breaking blocks or collecting coins.  This is a system based on a simple rule: planets are attracted to each other by the Universal Law of Gravitation.  With one stationary planet and one black hole, it’s relatively easy to predict what will happen–the planet will accelerate toward the black hole.  But take a typical level that has 3-4 planets moving in different directions, with one or more black holes in play.  Can a player exactly predict the motion of each and every planet? No, not really. Of course there are general patterns that emerge–planets tend to end up clumped together, circular and elliptical orbits appear quite frequently, etc. But these patterns are emerging from a sufficiently complex system, and thus allow for meaningful interactions.

Types of Emergent Complexity

As noted by the two case studies, emergent complexity can appear in many forms.  In the first case study, an extra rule, or type of interaction, was added to the typical projectile simulation game to create emergent complexity.  In the second case study, additional elements were added to the system to create more total interactions, resulting in emergent complexity. These are the two general pieces that make a system: elements and interactions. In a simple sense, complexity results from having a lot of connections between the different elements in a system. Add more elements or more interactions between existing elements, and your system becomes more complex. At a certain point of complexity, your system will start to exhibit emergent patterns.  There is no general rule for how many elements or interactions are needed to make a system emergently complex: it is in part a subjective judgment that varies from system to system, and is one of many pieces that adds an artistic element to game design.

Emergent Complexity and Learning

So, let’s summarize.

  1. Simulation games need emergent complexity to have meaningful interactions. 
  2. Emergent complexity results from including a lot of (but not too many) elements and interactions in a system.

The third piece of the puzzle is what happens when a player engages in such a game. The more we play with an emergently complex system, the more adept we become at predicting how the system will react to different patterns and manipulations.  It becomes more intuitive. Players are naturally drawn towards understanding the simulation better and resolving the uncertainty present in the emergent complexity. Players begin to grok the system, they understand how to cause different emergent patterns to appear and how to strategically use those patterns to beat the game.  Another way of putting this: players start to gain an intuitive understanding for how the complex system operates. So, to add in this third piece and complete the puzzle of learning in simulation games:

  1. Simulation games need emergent complexity to have meaningful interactions. 
  2. Emergent complexity results from including a lot of (but not too many) elements and interactions in a system.
  3. As players become drawn into the game, they gain an intuitive understanding of how the complex system in the game operates.

What does this mean for teaching students educationally valuable stuff? Well, I just argued that through playing an emergently complex simulation game, a student gains a better understanding of the simulation itself. If the elements and interactions of the simulation are real, or reflect real life elements and interactions, then students are gaining an intuitive understanding for a real life system by playing the game. Thus we end up with two prongs.

  1. A simulation game is engaging when it is emergently complex. 
  2. A simulation game is educationally valuable when it contains real elements and interactions. 

This leads to my biggest reflection after designing The Gravity Ether:

Being an educational game designer for simulation games just means being a good selector of which real elements and interactions to include in the simulation to achieve emergent complexity.  

The key component is being committed to only using real elements and interactions. Most games will start with some sort of real physics, but then add in unrealistic actions, which help create meaningful play but reduce the educational value of the game. The crazy motions undergone by Angry Birds defy the conservation of momentum, and thus do not help a player build an intuition for real physical laws. To me, being an educational game designer is about not making such compromises. It’s about finding and using the emergent complexity that already exists in real physical systems.

NYC Technovation Week: Creating Mobile Applications With Young Students

Did you know that third grade students can easily create their own Android apps? This summer, we used the Technovation Challenge curriculum and the MIT App Inventor at our summer camp. Within four days’ time, all of our students had created their own applications that sought to fix community problems functioning on their Android phones.

We are so excited at Iridescent to teach kids about programming and to make computer engineering an accessible subject. Our team was a little nervous that the campers would be too young to fully understand the App Inventor, but the visual interface was straightforward and mostly intuitive for our students to use. Below are some insights that we picked up along the way about teaching children to create their own mobile applications.

Tips for Helping Children Use the MIT App Inventor to Create Mobile Applications

  1. Challenge students to completely storyboard their application’s screens, sounds, and buttons on paper before trying to program them in the App Inventor. A nice resource for this is the screenshot worksheet (located on page 14).
  2. We had the students complete the HelloPurr and MoleMash (page 7) tutorials before creating their own apps. This familiarized them with the process of creating buttons, adding sounds and making new screens. 
  3. Talk with children about the Boolean commands (like “if,” “or,” “and,” “not,” etc.) that will be used in the MIT Block Editor–what does it mean to craft statements out of that language? How do these words impact a command?
  4. Let children explore the app inventor’s Block Editor before challenging them to create anything. We found that when they gradually learned on their own to manipulate the platform they were much more invested in the outputs they can create and willing to persist in working with the program.

Check out one of the applications created at our camp in four days’ time:

Learning to create applications helped our students to realize how accessible these programs and experiences are. At the end of the week, one of our girls said she had previously thought that only Apple could make mobile applications, but now she understands that she can too!

If you’re interested in teaching children to create applications, feel free to check out our online Technovation curriculum and sign up to participate. Also, check out other articles about our Technovation program here.

    Mechanisms and Simple Machines: How to Make a Gearbox with Moving Parts

    You can learn about mechanisms with these gearboxes made from just cardboard, sticks and foam!

    At our engineering Summer Camp in NYC, we prototyped projects focused on helping children to better understand how simple machines and mechanisms work together to create movements. Throughout the week, our campers built gearboxes, took apart (and tried to reassemble!) toys with moving parts and presented shadow plays with their gearboxes to parents. In this post, I’ll provide directions for making your own gearbox at home!

    To Make a Gearbox

    This is a great activity for teaching children about the mechanisms needed to create desired movements. Here are the instructions for how we made ours–feels free to use these as general guidelines or as a starting point.

    What You’ll Need

    • Cardboard box with front and back sides cutout
    • Foam (we used 1/8th inch) for mechanisms
    • Bamboo skewers or small wooden dowels
    • Tape
    • Colored paper (or anything else you’d like to make your characters from)
    • Hot glue

    Steps to Assemble Your Gearbox

    1) Pick a box you’d like to use, cut out the front and back portions
          –It should large enough to work in, but smaller than the length of your dowel/skewer

    2) Research different types of mechanisms and movements, you can begin by checking out this site.

    3) Create the gears you’d like by cutting the foam into circles.

          –A more circular gear creates more uniform movement

    4) Create the gear system, push the skewers through the foam gears, and poke them through the cardboard so the gears can rub against each other.

    -Make sure the gears are carefully placed so they touch each other with some force
    5) Create your character for the top of the box. The character is what the mechanisms will work to move.
    6) Connect skewers from the gears, through the box (not connected to the box) to your characters.
          –You should now have a gearbox with moving mechanisms!

    Gearbox Redesign Ideas

    Here are some things you can try at home to continue learning about mechanisms and developing your gearboxes.

    Try changing things about the gears:

    • You can cut the gears roughly or place rubberbands around them to increase friction.
    • Try cutting gears in non circles, what works, and what changes?

    Create different gear systems:

    • Try using more gears, different sizes, and different orientations
    • What happens when the skewer isn’t through the center? 

    Common Problems When Making Gearboxes 

    If your gearbox isn’t working at well as you’d like, try these ideas.

    The gears are touching each other but don’t push each other:

    • Try moving them together even closer
    • Try putting a rubber band around the gear 
    The gears slide on the skewer, getting out of place:

    • You can attach the gear to the skewer with glue, tape, or rubberbands
    The gears flop or bend off to the side:

    • Reinforce the gears with heavy weight paper attached on both sides

    Now That Your Design is Done

    Share it with us! Submit it here for feedback and ideas for redesign from our engineers. We’d love to hear about your process and what you thought was meaningful.

    NYC Aerodynamics Projects from our Engineering Summer Camp

    This summer, we challenged our 3rd-8thgrade students to use the engineering design process in multiple in-depth ways throughout Summer Camp. During this time, we taught curricula spanning from aerodynamics, to simple machines, to mobile phone application programming. In this post, I’ll write about our Aerodynamics and Flight designs—hopefully you find some inspiration to try these at home or in your own STEM programs!


    Aerodynamics and Flight Week

    We asked our students to explore aerodynamics by working on models that were capable of flight in various ways. Throughout the week, campers viewed bird bones at the American Museum of Natural History, learned about different bird body structures from ornithologist Peter Capainolo, and visited the NYC Wild Bird Fund to interact with live birds. We sought to increase our campers’ understanding about flight through informative experiences outside of the studio and by the trail-and-error experiential style of learning they were able to engage in at our studio. Here are some of the designs we made.

    Aerodynamics and Flight Designs

    Walk Along Gliders

    Students created small Styrofoam/paper gliders that used the draft created by a 2’ by 3’ piece of cardboard to stay in the air. This may sound simple, but getting the right shape of glider is tricky and takes a lot of designing. Check out this video to see how these designs look in action.

    Details: The walk along gliders took about 4 hours to complete with multiple iterations of glider shapes. To create this design at home, be sure to use very thin sheets of Styrofoam or phonebook paper and be sure that both sides of your glider are completely symmetrical. The gliders should stay pretty small (less than 6 inches) and it helps to check that the glider retains unwrinkled surfaces–re-flatten it after each test.

    Propeller-Powered Vehicles Capable of Flight

    Students were given two helium balloons and asked to use the torque generated from a rubber band motor (a rubber band twisted through a straw) to create a propeller that kept the balloons afloat.

    Details: This design works best when kids are given step-by-step directions on how to make the motors—loop a rubber band over a bamboo stick and then stretch it through a straw with a washer hot-glued to the opposite end (of the straw). Once stretched through a straw, loop the end of the rubber band onto another bamboo skewerwhen you twist the rubber band, the side with the washer attached to it should spin and provide torque for propellers to be attached. The propellers can be made from a wide variety of materials, including paper plates, plastic, and Styrofoam.

    Kites Made from Household Items

    Campers created kites out of trash bags, bamboo skewers, dowels and any other materials they thought would fly. 

    Details: This design works best when the kites have a lot of surface area and dihedrals, maybe even tails (depending on the shape). A nice way to encourage designs other than diamond kites is to have kids research different shapes beforehand. An easy and cheap string idea is to attach fishing line.
    Hopefully one of these designs inspire you to create at home! Also, remember that you can check out many designs related to flight on our Curiosity Machine website.

    How Technovation Inspired Me to Start a Company

    By: AnnaLise Hoopes, Technovation Director, SF Bay Area

    For the past three years, I’ve been working to inspire girls as technology entrepreneurs through Technovation. I started at Iridescent in 2010 when we had 43 girls in the program, and we now have served nearly 1400 girls in 24 states and 19 countries. It’s been an exciting journey, and it has inspired me to start my own company.

    Green & Go: a for-profit company with a non-profit heart

    I always saw myself as a non-profit person. I started my first non-profit in the 3rd grade, in the basement of my house with two friends, making crafts and selling them to raise money for our local animal shelter. This trend continued throughout college and graduate school (I founded VEGITAS), but the idea of starting a for-profit company never appealed to me. I wanted to save the world, not make money.

    What changed my mind? Meeting entrepreneurs who were saving the world.

    In my Technovation career I met so many women who were starting companies to solve real-world problems. The first seed was planted when I attended a Tedx event organized by a former Technovation instructor, and heard a talk by the co-founder of World of Good.  She too had never seen herself as a for-profit person, until she realized the potential of her company to do good while also making a profit. Later, I met Rose Broome who just launched her latest startup, Hand Up—an app that allows users to donate goods to homeless people they meet on the street. Another friend, Gavin Platt, co-founded a company called Lucid (right out of college) that is now transforming the energy usage of hundreds of university campuses and large-scale companies like Google.

    So, after a few years of meeting inspiring entrepreneurs and watching high school girls start their own companies, I realized I could do it too. I wanted to create an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional grab-and-go meal. As a working professional, I’ve always found it difficult to find healthy food when I’m in a hurry. Even when I do, I feel guilty about the fact that my meal comes in a plastic, disposable container that will remain in a landfill for hundreds of thousands of years after my fifteen minutes of using it. I wanted to develop a product that people could feel good about eating, a product that would educate people about the impact of their food choices. And so I created Green & Go, a line of eco-friendly grab-and-go meals. Each meal is made with organic, plant-based, locally- and sustainably-sourced ingredients. The meals come in a certified compostable PLA package, which you can throw right in the green bin when you’re finished. In essence, they are as eco-friendly as a grab-and-go meal can be.

    I started Green & Go a few months ago, and we are now in 16 stores across the Bay Area. Soon you will also be able to have the meals shipped directly to your home through an awesome company called Good Eggs.

    What lessons did Technovation teach me?


    One of the biggest lessons I learned from the Technovation program was the value of market research—early and often. I spent several months ideating product concepts, researching the food production industry, developing recipes, and testing them on anyone I could find. I went to the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets every Saturday for months, collecting survey data to find out what people enjoyed eating for lunch, how much they wanted to pay for it, what was important to them about their food, etc. In true Lean fashion, I spent very little money during this testing phase.


    Anyone who has been part of the Technovation program realizes the important role that mentorship plays in the life of an entrepreneur. So, early on, I sought out my own mentors from the food industry. It turns out the Bay Area is full of incredible food entrepreneurs! I interviewed Minh Tsai from Hodo Soy, Sarah Gill from The Inspired Cookie, and Shannon Radke from Cinnaholic (essentially, a collection of my favorite vegan food startups). I asked them dozens of questions about their experience building their companies, and tried to glean as much as I could from their collective wisdom. Another mentor to me was Sophia Chang, founder of Kitchener Oakland, where I incubated Green & Go for several months until it outgrew the space.It was invaluable for me to meet other entrepreneurs, hear their stories, learn from their challenges, and get their advice on my company.




    If there’s anything I learned from Technovation, it’s that starting a business is hard work and you may want to give up (sometimes daily). My boyfriend, who has watched my journey from a more objective standpoint, has noticed a pattern in my feelings about Green & Go. He has seen me face setback after setback and feel completely discouraged and disheartened. Sometimes in the very next day, however, he’s seen me elated with joy about a letter from a customer telling me she loves my quinoa salad, or a call from a grocery store that wants to carry my products. He’s noticed that the journey is quite like a roller coaster, and each time I feel discouraged he reminds me that I will soon have an upswing. He’s always right, and that’s how I’ve been able to keep going through the challenges. If you believe in your idea and its potential impact on the world, you know there will be an upswing and you stick with it until you get there.

    My advice to young entrepreneurs

    I’ve learned many lessons throughout my journey of creating Green & Go. Here are a few important nuggets that I’d like to pass along to young entrepreneurs:

    • Identify problems. Good ideas come from seeing a problem and envisioning a solution. For me, it was a problem in my own life that I wanted to solve in order to make an impact on the world. Look around you and identify problems that you see yourself and others struggling with. What unique perspective do you have that might help you generate an innovative solution?
    • Look for mentors. They are everywhere! You can learn so much in life simply by asking others for advice when you need help. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely and demoralizing experience, if you don’t have mentors and role models to guide you through it. Don’t forget that mentorship is a rewarding experience for the mentor, too, and most people will be happy to help you if you ask.
    • Test your ideas. Ideation and market research are critical to the design of a product. Get feedback from everyone who will give it to you—this will help you understand your end user and make your product better.
    • Do the math. In a speech she gave to a group of Technovation students, I heard Angie Chang explain how important it was to pay attention to numbers and “do the math” before starting a company. It’s easy to get caught up in your idea and think it will work out no matter what, but you won’t really know until you write up a business plan and do some number crunching. There are some numbers you won’t know in the beginning, but once you pilot your product you can continuously revise your plan and understand your true cost vs. revenue breakdown.
    • Don’t give up. You will want to throw in the towel on a regular basis. You will hit roadblocks that seem insurmountable, you will have sleepless nights, and you will wonder if it’s even worth it. The answer, in my book, is a resounding “YES.” Even if Green & Go fails, I will never regret a minute of the time I put into it. Starting a company and sticking with it through the challenges has made me a stronger person than I knew I could be.
    • The road ahead

      Tomorrow is my last day at Iridescent. I’m diving in full time to devote myself to Green & Go, which means I’ll be able to focus on some new projects and expand in more directions. My plans for Green & Go include getting into schools, catering for conferences, providing corporate lunches, branching out into farmers’ markets, and starting up a mobile street cart in metro areas. If your school or office is interested in healthy lunches, let me know!

      I will dearly miss all of the teachers, mentors, students and volunteers I’ve met through Technovation and I hope that you will stay in touch. Check out my website: and my Facebook page to learn what Green & Go is up to and tell me about your own ventures.

      I want to express my deepest gratitude to the Technovation community for all that you’ve taught me over the years. Thank you for inspiring me to take a risk, dive in, and become an entrepreneur—I couldn’t have done it without you.


      AnnaLise holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Studio Art from the University of Notre Dame, a Master’s in Education from Harvard University, and a California teaching credential. AnnaLise taught elementary school before joining Iridescent in 2010. Over the past three years, she has worked to grow Iridescent’s Technovation program from 43 girls to 1400 worldwide. AnnaLise is passionate about empowering young people with the skills, tools and confidence to make a difference in the world.


    Gravity Design Challenge

    Build a Space Mission with household materials and compete for a trip to New York with 2 guest to watch the Premiere screening and get the chance to see the stars from the film! 

    Get ready to build your rockets! We are very proud to announce the Gravity Design Challenge, a partnership with Warner Bros. Pictures release of GRAVITY, starring Academy Award® winners Sandra Bullock  and George Clooney, in theaters October 4, 2013. The Gravity Design Challenge runs August 12 and is hosted on our online science studio, Curiosity Machine, providing kids a hands-on learning opportunity in science and engineering. 

    The Gravity Design Challenge invites children to create a Rube Goldberg machine rocket that will simulate a space mission and orbit of the earth. The grand prize winner will receive complimentary travel and four tickets to the New York movie premiere on or about October 1. 

    In the Gravity Design Challenge, participating kids between the ages of 13 and 18 in the United States (excluding Arizona) and the District of Columbia will learn astrophysics and engineering design principles, while developing the persistency it takes to invent. The Gravity Design Challenge on Curiosity Machine includes three steps: 

    1. kids watch a video explaining scientific concepts and the engineering challenge

    2. kids experiment at home with their parents to design and create an invention

    3. kids submit photos and videos of their creations to receive feedback from mentoring engineers and scientists, and progress through levels from builder, to engineer to inventor.

    Volunteer mentors, including professional engineers, faculty and students from a variety of  organizations, including Boeing,  Columbia University,  Stanford University, UC Berkeley, USC, and University of San Francisco, will provide feedback to Gravity Design Challenge participants through the submission period. A panel of experts from the astrophysics field will judge the final entries.

    “The Gravity Design Challenge encourages kids to observe their world, ask questions and innovates, and is a great example of the type of hands-on family science programs we’ve done best at Iridescent. Through our partnership with Warner  Bros. Pictures, we are encouraging families around the country to take an active interest in science, engineering and space exploration through a fun and creativity-inspiring contest,” said Tara Chklovski, Founder and CEO of Iridescent. 

    Gravity movie 

    Academy Award® winners Sandra Bullock (“The Blind Side”) and George Clooney (“Syriana”) star in “Gravity,” a heart-pounding thriller that pulls you into the infinite and unforgiving realm of deep space.  The film was directed by Oscar® nominee Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”). Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney).  But on a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalski completely alone—tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to  Earth…and any chance for rescue.  As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space. “Gravity” was written by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, and produced by Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman (the “Harry Potter” films).  Chris deFaria, Nikki Penny and Stephen Jones served as executive producers.

    Cool Designs from NYC Spring Family Science Sessions

    This spring, New York City studio ran four different 5-week Family Science sessions with our partner schools. In these sessions, families learned about Electrical Engineering, the Engineering of Transportation, and Biomimicry and were able to work together to build models based on different design challenges. We had a lot of productive learning experiences and amazing designs come from these sessions, so I wanted to share a few of them here.

    First, let me briefly talk about the general components I saw in many successful Family Science designs. At these sessions, the engineering concept was taught in a way that allowed for open-ended creation, contained models that kids of all ages could be a part of and products that we were able to test for real-life situations. Ultimately, I think that Family Science designs that did not allow for variation or that needed families to follow formulaic steps did not tend to facilitate deep learning experiences for our participants.

    Okay, enough about the theory—lets talk about some cool designs!

    Propeller-Powered Vehicles Capable of Flight: For this Engineering of Transportation design challenge, families were asked to build a propeller that uses torque to power the balloon in vertical flight. Participants were able to draw upon their knowledge of helicopters and other vehicles, like ships, that use propellers to create their own models (hopefully) capable of flight. This design was fun for families because they were able to easily test the success of their design—how long could it stay in the air? Then, redesign was fun and immediately impactful. We had multiple designs that created a propeller-operated system able to stay in the air for more than 10 seconds!

    Electronic Sensor System: This Electrical Engineering design challenged families to build an electronic sensor system that is activated by movement. Participants had to understand circuitry and work to connect those components into a responsive system. This was a fun design because of the variation in products. One student created a suit that lit up when he put his hand on his chest; another created a system that lit up when her dog ate a treat from the model.

    Basilisk Lizard Tail: Families participating in the biomimicry course were asked to build a creature that imitated the basilisk lizard’s structure and was able to run over water. This challenge was particularly fun for kids of all ages because the materials and design components were highly accessible. Most models required taping, wrapping rubber bands, and cutting—tasks that even young children enjoy doing. Plus, even the youngest of kids were excited about creating systems inspired by animals. We tested these designs in the water and had a few that moved forward a bit without sinking!

    I hope you enjoyed hearing about some of our designs. If you’re particularly inspired, remember that most of our models are built from materials that can be found at home. Go ahead and try to build a model of a bird’s wing or a vehicle that can travel through water (or visit for design ideas). Be sure to let us know how it goes!

    The Fluid Ether is Live!

    This week, we finally released the second version of our physics simulation app! The Fluid Ether is a physics simulation game. You can find it in the App Store, or as a desktop download from our website. If you want to know more, read about the plans for the entire Ethers series or sign up to our newsletter to stay updated about progress in the series.

    In The Fluid Ether, students gain an intuitive understanding for fluid dynamics through the experience of playing the game. Players turn jets on and off to create patterns of play that accomplish simple level objectives like breaking blocks and collecting coins. Getting better at the game means knowing how best to manipulate jets of water- so learning the strategy to beat the game means learning physics.

    One of the levels in the game

    The game includes 3 features that distinguish it from other games out there.

    1. Deeper learning through challenge levels: Open-ended levels are punctuated with directed gameplay (called challenge levels), which causes kids to reflect on their learning and test understanding. Challenge levels will present one objective in a highly constrained format, directing the kid’s attention to features they may have taken for granted, and testing their understanding of those features.  For example, in the “density” challenge level, kids learn that balls of greater density have more inertia and take longer to accelerate. 
    2. Level Editors: Kids are encouraged to customize the game and add new levels through the level editor. They can choose from any of the objects or goals included in the game, allowing for kids to be real creators of media within the context of the game. Creating their own functioning levels allows kids to both practice their design skills, and to engage more deeply with the physics in the game.
    3. Data collection system and teacher interface: The game collects data as kids play. We offer a free online dashboard for teachers to see their kid’s play data as they play. The play data will also be used by Iridescent as in-game assessment of learning (meaning, we will try to say that students understand physics through their click and gameplay).  In the future, we will work with the Institute of Play to develop resources for teachers and educators to use the game in their programs, as well as hold Ethers Professional Development sessions

    A view of the level-editor

    The app was the result of a year of refining and redeveloping the original app, called “World of Physics: Fluids,” for those of you Iridescent regulars.  Based on all that we learned developing previous apps, we put our best practices to good use in developing this app.  Personally, this is the first app that I have developed with Iridescent, and I was very excited to be able to put my educational game design philosophy into a digital game.

    I’m excited to continue developing the games in this series! We have six games planned, on Fluids, Gravity, Light, Momentum, Projectiles and Electricity. In fact, we’ve already begun work on The Gravity Ether!  Our learning from the first game will allow us to go through The Gravity Ether in a quarter of the time: we’re planning to release the game this September, so stay tuned!

    The initial artwork for the other five games in the series.

    Thanks to our development partner, Robot Super Brain, and our graphic designer Ioana.  The Office of Naval Research funded this game.