Fleisher, Paul, Technology & Learning
From levers to lasers, from matter to mass, physics games and engineering puzzles captivate students with intriguing play. Who says physics can't be fun?
Ask your middle school students to calculate the amperage of a circuit or arrange a set of levers and pulleys, and brace yourself for glazed eyes and fearful expressions. These activities sound like pretty dry, serious stuff to most kids, but not if they're playing Physicus or The Return of the Incredible Machine: Contraptions, two new problem-solving programs that transform physics and engineering into fascinating games that will keep students involved for hours. While not intended as formal introductions to physical science, both programs nevertheless ask players to apply basic physical science concepts while engineering their way through puzzles and problems. Although the games are not advertised for collaborative use, students can play in groups of two, three, and four clustered around a single computer, sharing ideas and working together to solve problems--just the kind of teamwork and cooperation that most of us love to promote in our classrooms.
Physicus is a clever amalgam of science instruction and Myst-style adventure game, a graphic environment players navigate by searching for clues, picking up useful items, and solving problems. Kids begin this journey by sailing to a mysterious island where only abandoned buildings and laboratories survive. Due to an asteroid's impact, the earth has stopped rotating. The only way to start the planet spinning again, thus saving the world and winning the game, is to launch a great stone from a leftover catapult and finish the work left incomplete on the island.
As students explore the strange structures on the island, they encounter odd machines, all in states of disrepair. Operating these machines--which are comprised of levers, pulleys, crucibles, electrical circuits, telescopes, and other optical devices--requires applying some of the laws of classical physics. To get the machines working, players must find missing parts--such as weights, batteries, and lenses--by following written dues. Once the parts are found, students must use these items and determine the correct settings for the machines to work. All machines must be operational before the catapult can be deployed. It takes patience, precise scientific thinking, and quite a bit of trial and error to get the machines, and the world, working again.
The science required to play the game is not overly difficult; only a basic understanding of the principles of sound, light, heat, electricity, and mechanics is needed. On-screen tutorials are available through a "laptop computer" that players retrieve early in the game and can access through a click of the mouse. If a player doesn't know how to calculate the resistance in a circuit, or the amount of force needed to operate an assembly of pulleys, that information is available on the laptop. Extraordinarily detailed and beautifully rendered, Physicus is a great treat for students who want to put their scientific knowledge to use while they work their way through a challenging game.
Return of the Incredible Machine: Contraptions
Students in my classroom greeted this updated version of an old favorite with tremendous enthusiasm. As soon as I pulled it out of my briefcase, they jumped on it like ducks on a june bug. They weren't disappointed with the new round of puzzles offered in this expanded version of the original Incredible Machine. In classic Rube Goldberg fashion, students solve seemingly simple on-screen problems using highly complex and convoluted means. For example, players must create a device that will bounce three balls into three different baskets, build a contraption to ignite fireworks, or find a way to go "fishing" by shattering fish tanks with bowling balls. (You can see why this program would appeal to sixth-graders. …