One Christmas when I was a little bonehead in 1st or 2nd grade, I got a chemistry set. It came in a triptych-like case that unfolded with rows and rows of blue plastic bottles containing all manner of chemicals. Some of the bottles contained scientifically labeled table salt and baking soda, but among those 60 something chemicals there must have been something toxic, like Red Dye #2 or something. That was a different time; I survived. It included various vials, flasks, weighing spoons and the like. I’d carefully unfold it in the corner of the dining room secretly harboring 8 year-old visions of alchemy. But mostly I mixed together chemicals willy-nilly to see what colors they made, usually pasty white or colorless. When I ran out of the few chemicals that made blue, yellow or red, I abandoned my precocious chemistry career somewhat disenchanted.
A few years later in high-school: chemistry lab. After a couple of weeks of droning by the teacher– I don’t recall ever actually reading a textbook, but I was a lazy student (and actually, he was a great teacher)– we finally get to the first lab. I come in and scattered around the room are Erlenmeyer flasks, Bunsen burners, plastic hoses and test tubes. The look in the eyes of the students ranges from warily curious, to mischievous excitement to sigh-ridden boredom. The look in the teacher’s face somewhere between chipper resignation and taut dread. After we pair off with the usual adolescent social anguish, we get our lab instructions and are left to our own devices, under the watchful eye of Mr. Miner, the recently certified fire extinguisher conspicuously mounted in the corner.
A brief, concealed rush of excitement (I was 16, excitement unrelated to football or female breasts was inexcusable) as the child within thought now I get to do some real chemistry, my alchemical delusions reawakened. But as I followed the instructions step by step, weighing out .5 grams of such and such, 1.8 grams of this and that, combining with 300 milliliters of water, heat for x minutes . . . I felt the same disappointment and boredom that had descended on the 8 year-old me in the dining room. This was just a bunch of boring steps, and the concoctions weren’t even colorful, no yellow at all. Writing up my lab notebook seemed fun at first, scribbling like a real scientist, making tables, drawing graphs, but that too became tedious, a paint by numbers science exercise with all the thrill of a spelling quiz. Even the junior high frog dissection, anticipation building all semester, proved anticlimactic. I felt sorry for the frog.
Before raising the ire of high school chemistry teachers everywhere, I want to defend their valiant efforts. I was a recalcitrant brat. I admit it. Salt in the wound, I eventually became a scientist. The idea behind lab courses is noble: let students have an actual, physical encounter with the science they are learning about, to see it in the world, abstract concepts ground into powders, weighed in balances, poured from flasks, bubbling in beakers– doing, seeing, hopefully having fun. But it’s like trying to be a chef by following recipes . . . the joy of cooking is opening the refrigerator and creating, not reading and measuring. The joy of science is that little scratch beneath the surface of reality, a glimpse of the unseen and the world of possibilities it spins in the mind, the mad scientist feel of seeing the world differently.
I first had this experience, the non-disappointed chemistry set experience, in graduate school. My encounter with protein science, an awakening. Amazing little things, proteins. If Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, looking at a three-dimensional protein structure would have made his batty little head pop. I again encountered expanded consciousness with computer science and programming, where abstractions are not throwaway thoughts but, like Plato’s ideal forms, a sort of distilled reality– when poured into trillions of silicon transistors, transformative of on-the-ground reality. The Holy Grail, of course, was neuroscience, the universe in our billions of heads, the 21st century frontier.
For the most part, inspiration, at least for me, rarely arose from hands-on experience. The actual work of science is a frightful grind. In fact, it’s the hands-on lab work and the toil of experiments, including the unbelievable amount of prep and follow-up work, that keeps scientists anchored securely on earth. Aside from the drudgery, which eventually falls on others as one progresses in a scientific career, there’s this issue of being constantly wrong. Occasionally, an experiment will turn out exactly as predicted. Such outcomes make me nervous . . . what did I do wrong? What am I missing? Because the expected outcome of any experiment, I’ve come to believe, is neither a positive or negative result, but some entirely unexpected result that leaves you scratching your head and discovering something much more interesting than you’d ever thought about before. No matter how complex and nuanced one’s hypothesis and experiment, reality is always more complex and more nuanced. But it’s precisely this trekking back and forth from the heights of Olympus down to the messy muck of reality that is the heart and soul of science (you decide which is which). It’s Sisyphean with moments of delusion.
Creating this sense of discovery in a high school chemistry or biology lab is a tall order. And unrealistic. Mucking with actual chemicals and doing an experiment is not ethereal, not castles in the sky. It’s an experience of reality that like gravity pulls you to the ground, makes you heavy and keeps you from floating or flying away. Hands-on experience is really important, but where does the inspiration and excitement come from? How can students get a taste of Olympus?
Not, I think, from lab exercises. It happens in their heads. It’s that cognitive layer, the development and shaping of a representation of the world in their brains that gives rise to alchemic magic. So this brings us to video games. Reflecting back on my chemistry set, a virtual chemistry set embedded in a game would probably have inspired– and educated– my 8 year-old brain far more than my mixtures of table salt and Red Dye #2. The challenge is how to do it.
The answer, I think, is time travel. No, I’m not crazy. In a virtual world you can take students back to a time before we understood, for example, calculus. What problems existed at that time that could not be readily solved? By virtually regressing a student into the past in a game context, you can recreate for them a deeper understanding of ‘the problem’ and the thrill of discovery of solutions, allowing them to ‘discover’ calculus for themselves (with a little scaffolding help, of course). Many textbooks have little ‘special interest’ boxes where some historical tidbit is conveyed to students to pique their interest. An example might be the challenge of telling time and its importance to navigation. In an educational video game, the relation between special interest boxes and main text would be reversed: students face the challenge of navigation with unreliable time keeping devices in a game, and this becomes the heart of the learning. In this inverted approach to education, the ‘special interest’ boxes become the historical solutions, ie., the accumulated knowledge of mankind we want them to cotton on to in the first place.
Gamification rhetoric often centers on ‘make it a game and kids will like it.’ This often sounds like disguising education to make it palatable to kids, too often with little discussion of the quality of learning. An underlying, unspoken desperation appears to permeate much of this discourse– despite its cloying optimism– as if just getting kids to do anything educational is an accomplishment, never mind the quality and depth of the learning. Making education ‘fun’ is not what it’s about. Sneaking educational content into games is a great way to make games not fun. The potential of educational games must start from the premise that learning is fun and build around and scaffold the excitement that comes from discovery and mastery. Rather than disguise learning, to reach into the heart of what is best about learning, that glimpse, however brief, from Olympus.
Despite all we hear about declining literacy, dwindling attention spans, addiction to video games and on and on, the problem is not the kids. Their brains have not devolved. Their synapses pop and crackle like any generation. The kids are alright. Chemistry, calculus and physics have never been blockbusters, textbooks never the most engaging material. If anything, we have a brighter, more savvy set of young minds than ever before and tremendous opportunities to engage and educate them in ways we’ve never had before.