On Video Games and Compost: Reflections on the Year

Categories:  Fellow Alumni: David Banks

Looking back on the year, it would be safe to say that I spent a majority of my time actively observing. I was asking students and the teachers about what their perspectives on technology: how they used it, and its roll in the classroom. I’ve also been paying attention to testing methods, and the structure of curriculums. These various topics might not seem connected, but in practice, they are intimately related.

My first contribution to the GK-12 grant was the development of DNA Rockstar! in collaboration with RPI’s Product Design Studio (PDI). This game was meant to teach the four base pairs of DNA along with some other basic genetic vocabulary. The game utilized a familiar music-playing metaphor to teach the basic concept that musical notes and DNA base pairs have similar relationships to songs and organisms respectively. The game garnered interest within the GK-12 program, earning awards at the annual GK-12 conference in Washington D.C. It has also been accepted to the poster session of the 2011 Atlanta Conference on Science and Innovation Policy. Future  plans include a version 2.0 to be developed in late summer of 2011.

DNA Rockstar! isn’t the first (or even the best) example of appropriating entertainment technology for educational purposes. Mmore than anything, it was an exercise in redefining what an educational tool can be. The premise of the game was not radically innovative, and was sort of the point. Education must not stand alone as radically different from students’ lives outside the classroom. Kids’ attention is a hot commodity. Companies spend millions of dollars getting their attention to consume. While work must be done to make these sorts of corporate actions more humane, educators must do what they can, within their limited financial means, to provide another tactile experience. Active monitoring of what is popular with children should be a part of teachers’ pedagogy.

Later in the year, students review past topics in preparation for state administered exams. The urge to review topics in an abbreviated but similar format to the original instruction, makes sense on the surface. Reinforcing previous lessons refreshes the students’ memories and gets them ready for tests that cover a wide range of material. Mastery of the material however, does not come from rote repetition, but from viewing the same subject from various perspectives. That is why I created a lesson around composting to teach various biology and ecology lessons. Composting involves food webs, the carbon and nitrogen cycle, nutrition, plant biology, pH, organic chemistry, sustainability studies, and the scientific method. This hands-on activity allowed students to review material that had originally been taught months apart, giving them a more holistic picture of what was once disparate topics.

Students were asked to recall the carbon and nitrogen cycles. Emphasis was placed on how gaseous nitrogen is fixed in a form that plants can use. I noted that the material that came from my kitchen (this lesson had the added benefit of showing that science has a practical application at home, not just in labs) was high in nitrogen, and stuff that came from my lawn was high in carbon. This made sense since, as part of the nitrogen cycle, animals (humans), consume plants (producers) in order to gain nitrogen and other nutrients. We then used the compost to plant pea seeds and designed an experiment to compare compost with store-bought potting soil.

Projects such as composting are a great way to review topics already covered. Hands-on projects that combine different lessons offer an opportunity to show students the practical applications of  abstract topics, and investigate the interconnectedness of different science topics.

For my second year, I hope to design new lessons that bridge conventional curriculums, such that students are presented with a more interconnected view of science topics. By centering scientific investigation on a tangible object (such as compost) students should gain a deeper understanding of distinct topics. I also hope to improve DNA Rockstar! and make it a better, more immersive, learning technology.

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