Friday, June 8, 2012

Size the Day

It was time for my last game with the fifth graders, and the content was multiplication and division of fractions.  Having just been critical of a game that was very computation focused (see my Math Evolve review) I was very wary of doing the same thing.

I'm at the point now where I've designed more games than I can remember easily, so one of my first steps in game design is to search my own stuff. Failing finding a game to use, maybe there's one to revise. Failing that, maybe one to revise. I did stumble across my post on multiplying fractions. Oh.

I have many lessons that get at the meaning of the operations, can be used to start discovering, exploring and justifying the rules... but only the Product Game (adapted for fractions) for practice. But that post closes with an Ant Man and Wasp cartoon, and we'd been talking a lot about them because of the Avengers movie.  My son is a comic book fan (sounds better than monomaniacally obsessed, right?) so this was quite a debate. He loved the movie maximally, but would have loved it even more with the original comic book Avengers crew. (Joss Whedon wanted characters to whom non-super powered audiences could relate as well as the super powerful ones.)

 By Xavier Golden, Super Hero Squad style. "The hexagons are Pym Particles."
So I was struck with the idea of a size-changing game. But why would our heroes have to constantly change size?  To get past obstacles! Sometimes they'd have to grow, sometimes to shrink. I tried to think of a battle game because there were several boys always interested in that, but for battle it seemed like you'd almost always want to be giant-sized instead of ant-sized. So a kind of maze... so it could be a race game.

I tried to think of a way to turn dice rolling into fractions for multiplying or dividing, or to roll three and choose two, but that didn't feel appropriate for such new content. I wanted actual fractions to see and think about.

If you have transparent spinners, this is a good place to use them; I just used bobby pins, which make excellent spinner needles.  I experimented with the spinner entries and maze heights to find settings that were not too immediate but not too difficult either. Thinking about the framework I've been using...
1. Goal(s) - solid. I wanted students to get the understanding of the effect of multiplying and dividing by fractions, so contrary to their expectations. I wanted to get some sense of estimation, and some experience with calculations that would lead to support the symbolic rule they'll learn later. I'd also noticed that they were very interested in calculators, but had little experience with using them. This put everyone on an equal footing, as the numbers were messy and required a calculator.
2. Structure - like the stretching/shrinking as a context for multiplication/division. The spinners allowed a lot of flexibility in getting values to be used. Makes the game highly adaptable. And the intention of having to choose a multiplying or dividing spinner helped get across the stretching or shrinking effect.
3. Strategy - weak as it was.
4. Interaction - typically weak in race games, though .
5. Surprise - spinners help here and with...
6. Catch-Up .
7. Inertia - not meant to be a game that requires a lot of replay.
8. Rules - basic premise, spin and change your height. Move forward when you fit.
9. Context - thought this was strong, plus pop culture tie ins to a heavily advertised movie. Kids were interested and engaged, though I sold it a bit explaining about Ant Man and the Avengers. There's a little suspension of disbelief, as Wasp could just shrink and fly through all the obstacles, and it's rare that she grows in the book.

I added the Spin Again option to help with catch-up, strategy and interaction. But most students were so immersed in their own spins that they rarely used them! The other idea that I like quite a bit was the customizable board. Most of the fifth graders were happy to use the board as printed, but a few experimented with rearranging the board.  Maybe with middle school students, more would be interested in giving it a go. Designing a board for your opponents is a great opportunity for some open-ended problem solving.  I picked up a couple packs of mini post-its, and they were perfect for keeping track of the players' heights.

It was a good last game of the year. In the debrief, they definitely got the point that multiplying and dividing by fractions did not just have the same effect as multiplying by whole numbers, and a few kids were noticing that dividing by unit fractions was like multiplying by the denominator. I also saw considerably increased skill with the calculators, and some sensible rounding of the decimals involved.  (Parentheses were almost entirely new to them.) They asked me to leave the supplies so they could play later, and it got almost 100% thumbs up for keep or dump - both good signs.

Hopefully you can get a chance to give this one a try. It has some interesting features, and I think the choice of spinners and rearrangeable board will show up again - good game mechanic features. I'm always interested in your feedback, if you have any ideas or get a chance to use it with students. One dramatic need: the name is a terrible joke, and of absolutely no use with middle school.  Ideas?