Two new touch-screen games impart evolutionary principles with collaboration
: Caroline Perry
Multi-touch tables can recognize and accommodate several users at once, allowing students to collaborate and learn while they play an engaging game. (Photo courtesy of Michael Horn, Northwestern University.)
A pair of new studies by computer scientists, biologists, and cognitive psychologists at Harvard, Northwestern, Wellesley, and Tufts suggest that collaborative touch-screen games have value beyond just play.
Two games, developed with the goal of teaching important evolutionary concepts, were tested on families in a busy museum environment and on pairs of college students. In both cases, the educational games succeeded at making the process of learning difficult material engaging and collaborative.
The findings were presented at the prestigious Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI) conference in May.
The games take advantage of the multi-touch-screen tabletop, which is essentially a desk-sized tablet computer. In a classroom or a museum, several users can gather around the table and use it simultaneously, either working on independent problems in the same space, or collaborating on a single project. The table accommodates multiple users and can also interact with physical objects like cards or blocks that are placed onto its surface.
The new research moves beyond the novelty of the system, however, and investigates the actual learning outcomes of educational games in both formal and informal settings.
"Do we know what the users are actually learning from this? That question is a step beyond the research of the past 10 years, where we’ve been seeing research publications that assess how well the system is performing, but not addressing how well it’s accomplishing what it’s really designed for," says principal investigator Chia Shen , a Senior Research Fellow in Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Director of the Scientists’ Discovery Room Lab.
The two collaborative games that have been developed for the system, Phylo-Genie and Build-a-Tree, are designed to help people understand phylogeny--specifically, the tree diagrams that evolutionary biologists use to indicate the evolutionary history of related species. Learners new to the discipline sometimes think of evolution as a linear progression, from the simple to the complex, with humans as the end point.
"What people are used to typically is geospatial data, like a map," explains Shen. "In phylogeny, however, the students need to understand that the relationship between species really depends on when they diverged. That’s represented by the position of the internal nodes of the tree, not by counting across the top of the tree, which is how many people intuitively do it."
The Phylo-Genie game (see video below), developed by researchers at Harvard, Wellesley, and Tufts, attempts to address the misconceptions that students hold even at the college level. Designed for a formal classroom setting, the game walks students through a scenario in which they have been bitten by an unusual species of snake and must identify its closest relatives in order to choose the correct anti-venom.