Discovering optimal pathways for learning early mathematics
In an effort to relieve the crisis in STEM education, CSE grad students Erik Andersen and Yun-En Liu and Professor Zoran Popović are leading a team of undergrad students and artists to create video games that can discover optimal pathways for learning. They have focused so far on early math, including topics such as fractions and algebra, which are some of the main bottlenecks preventing students from pursuing a career in science. Currently, there are many competing theories for how best to teach these subjects, and a lack of experimental data to evaluate these methods prevents development of provably effective learning mechanisms. Large-scale in-school pen-and-paper studies can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.
However, children naturally gravitate towards video games, which can attract tens or hundreds of thousands of players. The goal of this project is to leverage this popularity to acquire huge amounts of learning data and discover the best ways to teach early mathematics. If players receive different versions of a game that have particular concepts changed or introduced differently, and the game records how players perform, researchers can use this data to understand how students learn. An additional goal is to make the game adapt to every player, so that it will never be too easy or too difficult and each student will always be working on the next concept he or she needs to learn.
Using data from Refraction, an early prototype game, Andersen and Liu developed a new visual datamining method to analyze the behavior of large numbers of players to quickly uncover game design flaws and common player confusions. They also used the game’s analytics framework to run large-scale experiments on player motivation, by randomly removing sound, music, animations, and optional rewards for some players and observing the change in play time and return rate. Ongoing in-school educational trials are evaluating the effectiveness of the games for improving pen-and-paper test scores.
These games have already become a hit in the community. Refraction, won the Grand Prize in the Disney Learning Challenge at SIGGRAPH 2010 and Best Work in the Primary School Category at NHK Japan 2011. Over 100,000 people have played Refraction since its release on Flash game website Kongregate.com, and dozens of elementary school students are already playing the game at school. In the coming year, the game will reach up to 50,000 students through K12 Virtual Academies, helping to gather the data necessary to answer big educational questions.