Using an App to Engage Kids in Computational Thinking
NYSCI’s Chief Scientist Stephen Uzzo and I were invited by the National Science Foundation to present The Pack at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, which is hosted biannually by Lockheed Martin in Washington D.C. The three-day festival brings together leaders in business, technology, government, education and culture to make science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) accessible to the general public and to raise STEM awareness. Everything STEM-related, from neuroscience, astrophysics, aerospace, art and design and AI, was represented at the festival. In addition, Francis Cordova, the director for the National Science Foundation and the new head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, was in attendance!
The Pack, funded through a STEM+C grant from the National Science Foundation and The JPB Foundation, is an open world app being produced by NYSCI. This app aims to engage middle school-aged children in utilizing computational thinking skills and immerses the player in a fantastical world in which their choices and decisions may have long-ranging environmental impacts.
Developed in partnership with Design I/O and a team of science advisors from the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Lamont Laboratories, The Pack invites players on a quest where they will encounter many challenges. To meet the challenges, they must find and befriend various creatures that can perform single functions, such as grab, repeat or dig. Once the player invites the creatures into their pack, they can accomplish complex tasks by combining creatures into an algorithm. Players have the opportunity to test their algorithms before placing them in the “real” world and without using the food sources which fuel the creatures’ actions. Once the algorithm is placed into the world, however, players must be on the lookout for unintended consequences of their actions. Each challenge can be met with multiple solutions, and players will be encouraged to explore, experiment and iterate as they practice computational thinking skills and engage in environmental systems thinking.
Computational thinking skills – ways of solving problems and designing systems based on the concepts of computer science – can be used beyond just the field of computer science. The Pack guides players in practicing algorithmic thinking and the deconstruction of complex problems into steps to find a solution, critical skills for middle school students in today’s world.
We brought the most recent prototype of The Pack to the festival and play-tested it with hundreds of players of all ages. Players enjoyed playing the game’s prototype, engaging with certain aspects more than others, depending on their age. The youngest players delighted in exploring the open world, often working in groups to find creatures to add to their pack and to collect food to feed the creatures. Meanwhile, older players in our target age range approached the game with specific goals, gathering and sequencing the necessary creatures to flood valleys or collect vast amounts of food automatically. We had a great time talking to the players and their parents about thoughts they had about this early version of the game and spreading the word about this exciting project.
In the coming months, our team will continue to develop The Pack into a fully operational and complex game, incorporating much of the user feedback compiled at the USA Science and Engineering Festival. We hope to release the final game in the next eight months to the App Store, available for free for MacBooks and iPads.