Friday, June 8, 2007

Elementeo: Chemistry Concepts through Play

NPR reported yesterday on the new card game Elementeo created by a seventh-grader in California to make learning chemistry more approachable and fun. The battle card game works on a design similar to Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, in which players make use of attacking and defending unit cards on a playing field, which may be enhanced or weakened by a number of modifier cards. Instead of magical creatures and spells, though, Elementeo bases play on elements and the formation of compounds, along with other chemistry concepts.

Since I'm not particularly familiar with these types of card games and the reasons their fans enjoy them, I wondered if the game was complex and interesting enough to capture the interest of a good cross-section of card gamers. Fortunately, the game was covered by Slashdot, where a fair number of gamers hang out. Unfortunately, the discussion following the game's story left much to be desired, and I was once again reminded why I usually don't bother with Slashdot discussions: Even when I read only the posts that get mod'ed up, the commentary is rife with inane statements, uninformed opinions, and hasty judgments, along with their rebuttals. Take for example this statement from "A beautiful mind":

The kid's idea is stupid anyway, sure you can roleplay very basic things with it by providing an analogy, but that analogy doesn't work consistently and does not allow for a deeper understanding of chemistry. So unless you are satisfied with the "iron card and oxigen [sic.] card equals rust card", it does not allow for a deeper understanding. Don't tell me kids are not supposed to learn more at that (around twelve) age, you're probably expecting too little of them.
"Zaguar" expressed a similar viewpoint:
As somewho [sic.] knows something about Chemistry (going to the 2007 Moscow IChO), this idea is flawed. A high school chemistry syllabus is structered [sic.] the way it is for a reason. I can think of several examples. 1. Chemistry is not all about elements, even at this basic level. For example, how will they teach acid-base chemistry? How will they teach gas laws? Even if this is just a small component of the syllabus, it is a waste.
The poster continues to explain the complexities of different types of bonding, and claims that the rudimentary concepts presented in the game don't cover bonding in enough depth, concluding with:
My take - chemistry may be boring in high school, but so are most things. It's structed [sic.] in a way that builds upon previous knowledge, and this guy is just hoping to make a quick buck off VC's with a product that is clearly not thought out.
As someone who also knows something about chemistry ("recently published in Analytical Chemstry"), as well as a little something about education, I don't think I could disagree more. It doesn't appear that Zaguar's post was clearly thought out, since I find it unlikely that most middle school students would create a game based on high school content. "Dr.Boje" agrees,
I really doubt that the intention of this game is to completely replace a chemistry class, much less a high school chemistry class; after all, this is a 13-year-old still in middle school. I think the intention of this game is to get kids interested in chemistry and teach them the basics (regardless of how basic it may be) without alienating them from the subject.
But even if we grant that the game's scope is limited to a certain subset of chemistry knowledge, what about the objection from "A beautiful mind" about the depth of the content: Are elements and simple compounds too basic for middle school students? Not according to the Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework, to take the example of one state. Massachusetts doesn't introduce the concepts of elements and compounds before sixth grade; and even then, the standards represent only a basic introduction:
5. Recognize that there are more than 100 elements that combine in a multitude of ways to produce compounds that make up all of the living and nonliving things that we encounter.

6. Differentiate between an atom (the smallest unit of an element that maintains the characteristics of that element) and a molecule (the smallest unit of a compound that maintains the characteristics of that compound).

7. Give basic examples of elements and compounds. (p 67)
The Core Knowledge framework proposed by E.D. Hirsch is slightly more demanding in that it introduces the concept of elements in fourth grade:[1]
Elements are the basic kinds of matter, of which there are a little more than one-hundred. There are many idfferent kinds of atoms, but an element has only one kind of atom. Familiar elements, such as gold, copper, aluminum, oxygen, iron; Most things are made up of a combination of elements. (p 105)
The idea of bonding and compounds (not the detail) comes along in grade five:
Basics of atomic strucutre: nucleus, protons (positive charge), neutrons (neutral), electrons (negative charge); ... Atoms may join together to form molecules and compounds. Common compounds and their formulas: water H2O, salt NaCl, carbon dioxide CO2.

Elements have atoms of only one kind, having the same number of protons. There are a little more than 100 different elements. ... Some well-known elements and their symbols [lists 13 elements]; Two important categories of elements: metals and non-metals (p 129)
Though these two frameworks differ in exactly when to introduce elements and compounds, the point is that upper elementary and middle school students are still only being initiated into the inner workings of the world around us. Learning is progressive, and many of the details of chemistry, or any other discipline, are rightly left until high school when students have developed a stronger foundation. A game such as Elementeo helps to lay that foundation, not by replacing traditional lessons or by being an exhaustive font of content knowledge, but by supplementing instruction with an engaging introduction to key concepts. One should not demand more.

But, enough with the naysayers. After my journey to Slashdot and back, I was still left with the question of whether this game would have the kind of appeal that, say, Magic: The Gathering has. I decided that it probably would not (note, wait for a caveat to come): In its present form, the deck has only 66 cards, unlike the hundreds or thousands available for Magic: The Gathering, and thus likely will not support the complexities of game play that make other games more attractive. The concept is perhaps also somewhat limited in just how far it can push the theme before new additions seem merely like "more of the same." (Yet, this could just reveal my unfamiliarity with the content of these kinds of card games.) On the other hand, there could possibly be some very interesting ideas one could incorporate from the very rich sub-discipline of biochemistry.

Nevertheless (here's the caveat), the potential failure of Elementeo, or a game like it, to achieve a general, wide-spread interest in the gaming community at large does not signify a failure of the game in itself. Rather, if Elementeo is enjoyed even only in the limited context of school children in a narrow segment of grades and in a specific set of formal and non-formal educational venues, the game may be considered a wild success, since its purpose is not merely to entertain, but also to enhance education. In other words, the game succeeds in its mission to make learning a little more enjoyable, even if it doesn't succeed in its non-mission to keep large groups of random people entertained for hours on end.

And so, I support the release of Elementeo; I wish Anshul Samar and his team the best in production, marketing, and distribution; and I look forward to hearing about how well the game is received by children in classrooms and after-school programs all over the nation.

[1] Core Knowledge Sequence: Content Guidelines for Grades K-8. Charlottesville, VA: Core Knowledge Foundation, 1999.

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