Monday, 25 October 2010

Learn Design by Making Your Own Video Games

[caption id="attachment_76" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Gamestar Mechanic"]Gamestar Mechanic [/caption]

2 Years ago, I got an invite to participate in the closed beta test of Gamestar Mechanic.  It was a very innovative video game aimed at middle school students that was designed to teach the basic principles of design.  It was started through a partnership between various groups including the Institute of Play, Gamelab, and the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab (AADLC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Students would work their way through a narrative set in a futuristic, steampunk world and at each level would be set with tasks that would demonstrate certain design principles.  Eventually, students would get their own workshop where they could build their own games from scratch and share them with the rest of the community.  I had a group of  students working on it as an extension project in my grade 5 class.  Unfortunately, the company hired to build the game went under and Gamestar Mechanic was shelved for a couple of years.

Well the project reappeared last year in a revamped version built by E-Line Ventures.  Originally written in Java, the new Flash-based version is smoother and snappier.  When I rediscovered the project, I was excited to see that they were just entering another closed beta-test and I again asked for an invite.  This time, I wanted to use it to teach the design cycle in my MYP Technology classes. The unit was focused on the AOI (Area of Interaction) 'Community and Service'.  They would provide feedback to the developers about their experience and would try to help identify bugs in the program.  Each student kept a blog as they made their way through the game and documented their thoughts and feelings as well as any technical problems that they encountered.  Later, these blogs were transformed into web pages where they documented the entire process of making their own game using Gamestar Mechanic.  As members of the growing Gamestar Mechanic community, they would leave constructive comments on other people's games that they played in Gamestar's 'Game Alley'.  Here is an example of a grade 6 student's blog.

This turned out to be a very exciting project.  The developers were very interested in the students' feedback and were reading the blogs and commenting on them regularly.  We had a back and forth discussion with them on VoiceThread and later, all of my classes had a face to face with them using Skype.

In recognition of their valuable contributions, they are giving each student a one year premium membership to the site for free!  (They usually charge $50 USD.)  So we got a chance to take part in a great project, in a way that was valuable, authentic and fun.  And I learned that the best opportunities don't always fall in your lap.  you have to go looking for them.  And if you want something, ask.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Funny Faces with Scratch

Inspired by a visit from artist Hanoch Piven, my grade 7 technology class decided to make funny faces of our own--but ours would be animated!. We have been learning Scratch and it turned out to be the perfect platform for the job.

Learn more about this project

I have just sent in an application to deliver a Scratch workshop at the Beijing Learning Summit 2010 that will be hosted at the Western Academy of Beijing on Saturday, November 13th. Hopefully I will see you there!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Making Movies

My grade 8 class is planning to make their own short videos this term. They will eventually put together their own 2-3 minute videos. The MYP 'Area of Interaction' for this unit will be Community and Service. The videos are expected to be educational to some degree and will be shared with the community. We are still in the early Investigate stage. Students are watching and sharing a lot of short videos on their own and we are beginning to categorize them according to form, content and style. In the meantime, the videos that I am showing try to draw attention to particular features that I want them to think about when they start making their own. For example, we were looking at creative use of sound in Friday's lesson. I showed them a great little video from a reality show called 'On The Lot' that was on TV a few years. ago. The director, Zack Lipovsky was well known on the show for his stunning special effects work. But in this video, there are none--just very clever use of sound effects. And they make all the difference. Take a look:

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Perfect Paper Airplane

[caption id="attachment_59" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="A reliable classic"][/caption]

This week, I started a new unit with my grade 6 classes to build the 'perfect' paper airplane.  After an initial tuning it period where students build a variety of airplanes that they knew and argued about the virtues of each we realized that we would have to unpack the problem a bit more and try to understand what sort of 'perfect' we are talking about.  Students began brainstorming about criteria that we ought to look for in our airplanes and what sort of fair test could be used to determine which airplane is the best.  So, as we begin to investigate the problem, students have been set with 2 tasks.  First, in groups, they have to design some 'fair tests' that we could do.  I have asked for 4 ideas.  In each case, they have to explain what criteria they are looking for and how they intend to measure it.  They might be looking for a plane that stays up in the air for a long time, flies very far or flies very straight.  And they have already realized that an airplane that is built for one purpose may not necessarily win out in a different category.

They also realized that as a part of our fair test, we will need rules.  Can each person use whatever paper they want or will we make everyone use the same one?  How many pieces of paper can they use?  Are tools like scissors or glue allowed?  Can extra pieces, like paperclips, be added or not?  On Monday, we will look at their responses and by next week, I will be able to post in some detail about our upcoming 'Perfect Paper Airplane' contest.

In the meantime, let me leave you with the results of some of my own research.  A popular term for airplane building is aerogami after the Japanese origami. Having invented paper, the Chinese are likely to have been the first to build paper airplanes.  There is evidence of paper airplane building in China from as early as 500 BCE.  The world record for time aloft for a paper airplane is 27.6 seconds, held by Ken Blackburn.  A very cool paper airplane design that you may not have seen before is the ring.  I can confirm that, at least indoors, it flies surprisingly well.  This website has pictures and downloadable videos for a whole bunch of intersting designs.  This one doesn't require any downloads.  They are laid out as a series of moving .gif files.

More on paper airplanes next week!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Back in the saddle again...

I am back online and newly committed to keeping blog entries rolling on a regular basis. I had to take a bit of a break with the arrival of a new member of the family, starting a Master's program and the start of a new school year doing a new job.

Let me start with the little guy.

[caption id="attachment_45" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Welcome to the family!! "][/caption]

He arrived at 3 kg with no complications.  He is sleeping and feeding well.  His brother is going to need a little time to get used the the idea but at with paternity leave and a couple of holidays, I hope I was able to make up for some of the attention that he wasn't able to get from his recovering mommy.

I just started work on my Master's in Educational Technology from the University of British Columbia.  My first course is Foundations of Educational Technology.  It claims a "crisis of unity and purpose" in the field of educational technology.  Studies in feminism, Post-structuralism and Post-colonialism have "eroded" some of the traditional foundations of the field and we will look at what is left and what is being put up in place.  This blog will also serve as a sort of ePortfolio for some of the work that I am doing in the program.

Finally, I have started a new school year in a very different role.  I spend half of my time teaching Technology to Middle Years students.  The rest of the time, I am a "Technology Integrator".  I work with elementary teachers to help them find new and innovative ways to integrate technology into their classrooms.  We just got classroom sets of netbooks for the elementary school so it should be an exciting time.  (If you are curious, we went with the ASUS Eee 1005PE.  It has an unbelievable battery life and feels a bit more durable than some of the other options we looked at.)