As an undergrad, I detested labs. They were boring.
Demonstrated by teaching assistants with a superior knowledge of the information I was meant to glean, somehow titrating liquids in chemistry and dissecting animals in biology were to lead towards an understanding of what felt like arcane knowledge.
Things improved slightly in upper years as I gained a better understanding of basic principals, but labs were still far from something I looked forward to.
Many years later, I’m now on the opposite end of the lab bench. Now I teach boring labs.
My first teaching experience
I had a blast lecturing a third year evolution course. Although writing the lectures was difficult, I was lucky enough to have excellent lectures shared by a colleague. It only involved adding some new material to make them my own.
The students also seemed to enjoy themselves as each class was teeming with discussion. I even had guest lecturers surprised with how interactive the class was.I felt I was getting the students excited about the material because they wanted to participate. It was fun.
I can’t say the same about the labs. The labs mirrored what I was taught almost two deccades ago and the same things that appear at almost any other university. But I understand why labs don’t change as often as lectures. Creating a new lab is difficult as it requires isolating the concepts you want to teach and then figuring out a simple experimental way to teach those ideas in three hours.
But no matter how fun you try and make picking up different types of cereals with chop sticks and tongs to demonstrate selection, It just ends up being picking up different cereals with chop sticks and tongs. It’s boring.
I wanted to try something different. I wanted the the students to engage in a problem-based learning approach. But the problem was that I didn’t know how to do it. After scouring the web, I accidently came across a “Top 20 ways” site titled “Augmented Reality In Education? Here Are 20 Examples“. The title was ridiculously lame, but being desperate, I clicked the link.
I’m glad I did because that’s where I found Aris.
What is Aris?
Aris is an augmented reality location-based game maker. What this means is that it allows you to create games that allow users to interact with a virtual world by using their phone (currently only iPhones). A hugely successful example is Ingress by Google.
What makes Aris incredible is that it is simple, amazingly versitle and free.
Aris allows you to create interactive tours leading students through a forest with characters that pop up on the screen and tell them about the locations they’re visiting. You can create a scavenger hunt that requires students to find different examples of biodiversity while on a field trip.
Or you can ask students to imagine they are a male jumping spider searching for a mate. Then, by populating the world with predators, prey and mates, you can see the different strategies students use to mate with as many females as possible. The latter is what I chose to do.
Teaching students about mating strategies
It’s called “Mate if you can!” and it’s a game where groups of four students play the role of a male spider trying to find a mate.
While they are wandering around campus in search of mates, they encounter resources they need to gather (in the form of flies and crickets) and predators they need to avoid (although the predators remain hidden).
What this game teaches students is that the right survival and mating strategy is strongly linked to the context in which an individual finds themselves and the earlier developmental decisions they are forced to make; an understanding that is guided by my evolutionary research.
This requires students to think about their strengths and weaknesses and how they interact with their environment.
The game starts by students having to make two decisions: (1) when they want to develop and (2) what kind of a physiology they want to have. Each choice has its costs and benefits.
These decisions determine how the students will interact with the virtual world I created.
The students then wander around campus exploring this virtual world. Just like other games students are used to, there are acheivements and rewards (à la game-based learning) and an interface that is simple and familiar.
As they wander around, they interact with the different characters that spawn throughout the campus thereby gaining resources they need to court females, fight off rivals, and excape predators. How well they succeed depends on how well the team is able to navigate their surroundings based on the developmental decisions they made earlier.
Apart from being fun, what makes this game a great teaching tool is that it allows you to keep track of every team’s decisions (because I’ve made each character give items to a player when interacting). After the alloted time, you can download all the player infomation, head back to the classroom and discuss the different strategies everyone used and why certain teams performed better (or worse!) than others. It allows for real data analysis within the 3-hour time window!
Why I can’t wait for my students to try this
I ran a trial with some friends, and they loved it. Watching them run around campus competing with each to see who mates with more females was priceless.
I think this is an awesome way to engage students to think while allowing them to have fun. I’m excited that our Dean is investing in the infrastructure (the iPad minis) to start this up and I hope that everyone in the department starts using Aris. In fact, I’ll promote the heck out of it.
But most of all, I can’t wait for my students to try this out in three weeks. And then I can’t wait to make more games that teach different biological principals. Teaching really is fun.
(Stay tuned for a update after the lab on September 9th!)
In short, although it was a stressful day, I had a blast with the lab and it seemed the students did too. There were some issues (mainly in GPS lag), and the discussion didn’t go exactly as planned, but the survey suggests that I can count the lab a success. I would definitely do it again.
Now on to the details.
We started things off in class where I explained the premise behind the game and what students will be required to do. It seemed that there was some buzz about the lab as some students knowingly nodded their heads while smiles of trepidation appeared on other students’ faces. I was happy (and surprised!) that word got around and that the vast majority of students were smiling as it gave me a bit more confidence to go on with, what felt like, a crazy idea.
The announcement of a prize (4 – $15 gift certificates at the UNSW Bookstore) for the winning team sealed the deal for the rest of the class. Everyone seemed excited and I even heard some groups discussing their strategies.
The one concern I had was ensuring the money well spent on 20 new iPad minis was not money thrown away. We thus decided to exchange each iPad mini for a student card, phones and a signature. Thankfully, ransoming their mobiles ensured the investment’s safety. With everything in hand, the students were off for a 10 minute walk to the Village Green at the bottom of campus.
The trials I ran beforehand suggested that a large open area would be best. Looking back at the day, it would not have worked as well if the students didn’t have the open area. The frustration of having items appear in and between buildings would have ruined the lab. Plus, it was a lot safer. These guys were really sprinting…
Before we all even arrived to the green, the students were off and running around for food and females. I didn’t even get a chance to explain anything once we got there!
But it was quite a sight! The groups dispersed all over the field and began racing against one another to reach items before others. It was great to watch people stop in disappointment when they realized they were too slow. The concept that resources are scarce was definitely realized.
I budgeted for about an hour, but students started slowing down after about 30mins. It’s not surprising given that some students were really running at a good pace. At this point, however, I wasn’t sure if it was because they were figuring out their strategy and making better decisions (I hoped) or because it was getting tiring and frustrating. Unfortunately, it was a little of the latter.
The GPS on the iPad minis didn’t seem to keep up with how fast some students were running. Understandably frustrating. I’m not sure if that was a hardware or a software lag, but something I will bring up with the developers. Also, it seems that flies (the main food source) didn’t appear often enough. That, however, is an easy solution. I currently have 2 flies appearing per person every 20 seconds. I’d change that to 10.
After everyone settled down and the TAs gathered the groups, we walked back to the class and had the discussion. At this point I felt a little blind and I also had my first insight into what a modeller must feel like when running their model for a first time. A model is only as good as the variables entered and although I had an idea of how to weight everything, these student-computers highlighted the errors in my educated guesses.
It seems I made one mistake which resulted in half the groups gaining an unfair advantage. Only late developing individuals (as they were larger) could catch crickets. The crickets just provided too much of an energy benefit which allowed them to mate more often. This threw things out of whack between the different strategies and unfortunately, resulted in less to talk about.
But I received a great anonymous comment from a student:
It did not illustrate the advantages of maturing earlier; and it highlights the strongest strategy to mating and feeding (grow big and high metabolism), however this is not the case in reality.. where game theory may allow for multiple successful strategies. (if only one phenotype was dominant, we wouldn’t expect smaller/low energy traits to be viable, yet it exists).
Boo yah. I hear that…
Nevertheless, we chatted a bit about some of the details. What gave these individuals such a benefit? How could we fix this to make it fairer? Although it wasn’t a long discussion, since then I’ve come up with a list of questions I would ask students to help the discussion along. Live and learn.
After the chat, I built in a short survey the students could take to give me an idea of how they enjoyed the lab and what could be fixed. At first I was a bit worried about what to expect, but the 42 responses (almost 2/3 of the class) suggest they really enjoyed it.
I learned quite a bit about creating a new lab that day. I learned that students are really open to new ideas, especially if the ideas are intriguing. I learned that they picked up technology extremely quickly; working the app was second nature to them. I also learned that students are quite forgiving about mistakes, errors, and problems with new labs especially when they see you trying something new. That especially made me feel that experiments like this are worthwhile.
Overall, the results were very gratifying. I would definitely run this again, and I’m currently working on another game for our evolution class (it’s a game on gift giving and the evolution of cheating) and am willing to create a game for other classes where coordinators are willing.
Before ending, I’d like to thankTerry, Rob and Tracey for allowing me to run this lab in their course, Dave Cohen for being so supportive and allowing me to give this a try, and the BEES post-grads that were willing to help out.
It was a tonne of fun.
If you’re interested in running the game in your lab or class, please contact me. I’m very happy to share so that students everywhere of any age have fun in science classes. I’ll also write-up a tutorial for the game for coordinators if there is enough interest.
And if you’ve got an idea, I’d love to make it into a game—get in touch!