Sites That Teach: Filling the “Gap”

Upon cursory examination, it’s obvious that there’s no shortage of math game websites. However, most of these aren’t terribly good, inasmuch as they were not developed by those who understand the elements that drive a good game (namely, game designers).

Of the sites that were developed with the input of game designers and mathematicians or teachers, most of these are “drill” sites. That is to say, sites that hone a skill the player already possesses. Very few of these can actually teach.

So, I’ve been on a mission to discover fun math game websites that actually do just that… Teach. I’m not talking about sites that exercise the math concept children have already grasped, but sites that extend a child’s current knowledge base with respect to math.

Two teaching websites that come immediately to mind are DreamBox Learning and MangaHigh (via Prodigi). Between these two sites, they provide curriculum for grades K-3 and grades 7-11+, which leaves a gap (no curriculum) for grades 4-6.

It seems that this “gap” is almost organic, in that there is a natural division after 3rd grade and before 7th grade. Be that as it may, parents are still left to find, curriculum to fill the gap. So, I’ve been on a quest of sorts, to discover if there’s someone who provides curriculum to fill the aforementioned “gap”.

Occasionally, I find some really interesting sites, but they just don’t help fill this “gap”, so the search continues.

MangaHigh: Algebra Meltdown

fun_math_games_algebra_meltdown

Algebra Meltdown is a fun math game in which the player solves linear equations to guide atoms through a nuclear reactor. You have been hired by Lissaman Industries to work on one of its dangerous black-ops research projects. Your job as a new controller is to fulfill the requests of the scientists waiting at the Generator’s outlets. Each scientist will request a certain atom, which you create by solving linear equations, then guiding ‘raw’ atoms through the Generator’s labyrinth of machines and tubes to the appropriate requester.

I played a few of the algebra games I found on the web, in an effort to establish a context for what the MangaHigh team achieved with Algebra Meltdown. The thing that struck me immediately was that most of the algebra games are terribly simplistic in terms of game play, so much so that sometimes the game play is derived from some bolted on activity. In contrast, Algebra Meltdown is real game with a serious algebra curriculum as its underpinnings.

The game play has complications beyond the equations themselves… You have to be quick and give the rather impatient scientists what they need. If you take too long in fulfilling a request, the scientist will storm off. If you frustrate too many scientists, you will be terminated. So, the clock is ticking… tick-tock, tick-tock. The other complication is managing the gates, on any given reactor, that deliver an atoms to a specific outlet. You might solve the desired equation, but route it improperly.

The pace of Algebra Meltdown is quite good and it some how avoids that “math test” feel. It doesn’t take too long before you start to feel the pressure created by the demands of the scientist and managing multiple requests. The quality of the game design really does shine through, inasmuch as the curriculum is woven into the very fabric of the game.

Once again, I have to say, “Bravo!” to the MangaHigh team.

Timez Attack

fun_math_games_timez_attack
I was in the midst of preparing to write a rather synoptic review of  Timez Attack, by installing and playing the game. After I’d successfully installed the game and had started to play, the on-screen activity caught my daughter’s eye (even though she doesn’t care for dungeon games).

She asked in her sing-song way, “Papa… Whatcha doin’?”

I responded, “I’m trying to play a game called Timez Attack.”

Without missing a beat she asked, “What kind of game is this?” Read the rest of this entry »

LeapFrog Didj

Cool_Math_Games_LeapFrog_Didj

My daughter has been a Leapster2 player for a couple of years, but she’s at the upper age range for the bulk of the Leapster games, so I did a bit of cherry picking, in terms of purchasing Leapster games, and started looking for the successor to the Leapster2. The successor had to be a serious educational platform as well as being a cool and engaging game device.

When I say, “serious educational platform”, I’m speaking to the ability to track or measure progress, and ideally customize content.

While the Nintendo DS might be good choice as a successor to the Leapster2, there is no facility to track progress or customize content, so we stayed with LeapFrog and purchased the Didj.

The Didj comes with one starter game, Jetpack Heroes, a math game for grades 2-5.

The other math game titles available for the Didj are:

  • Android Invasion
  • Indiana Jones
  • SpongeBob Squarepants: Fists of Foam
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars
  • Super Chicks

What Have We Here?
In terms of form factor and appointments the Didj has a lot in common with the original Game Boy Advance, with its d-pad, “A” and “B” face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and a screen in the middle of the system. As with the GBA the game cartridges load into the top of the system, and it has a power On/Off slider, a volume slider, as well as a backlight slider. All of the sliders are inset making accidental changes rather difficult. All-in-all the system has a solid feel and the buttons perform well.

The Didj is powered by four AA batteries (called LR6 in some countries), distributed in compartments on either side of the device. The compartments are accessed by pressing a coin into a slot at the edge of the compartment. The coin depress a latch that allows the compartment to slide off. Removing the battery compartments is a bit of a pain, but it’s designed to prevent children from “exploring”.

The Didj must be configured before your child can start playing. The configuration process includes, setting up the Didj handheld (by selecting a country and creating a profile), installing LeapFrog Connect  on your PC or Mac (from the included CD), and finally connecting the Didj to the computed (on which LeapFrog Connect is installed) to finish the configuration and download the Jetpack Heroes mini game.

Once you power up the Didj you’ll notice the customization options, which include player name and grade (for up to 4 players), and screen color combinations for the menu screens, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Once LeapFrog Connect is installed and you access the Didj Home Page, which presents four additional tabs: Micromods, Didjerator, Skill Selector, and My Didj.

With respect to the initial Didj configuration you’ll be most interested in Didjerator, Micromods, and Skill Selector (not necessarily in that order)

Didjerator
The Didjerator is a part of the Didj LeapFrog Connect Application where Didjis (avatars) can be selected and customized, or created from scratch. These Didjis can then be transfered to the Didj handheld to be used in games. The Didjerator can store up to 10 Didjis.  If you want to create a new Didji after having already saved 10, you will need to delete one of the old Didjis.

Didjis can only be used in non-licensed games such as Jet Pack Heroes and Super Chicks.  Didjis are not available for use in licensed games such as Star Wars or Disney Cars.

Micromods
The Micromods page is where your child can “spend” the Bitz he/she earns by achieving goals on the Didj handheld to “purchase” customizations to enhance the gaming experience such as, additional backgrounds, weapons, power-ups, new background music, Didji costumes, and additional character animations for games.

After playing a game, Micromods for that game will become available. Once downloaded, Micromods are set to automatically download to the Didj handheld the next time it is connected. Ensure that a Micromod is set to automatically download, navigate to the On My Didj page and look for the associated game. Make sure the check mark next to the game is checked.

Skill Selector
The Skill Selector page allows parents to customize their child’s gaming experience, by incorporating a unique targeted Skill Set (curriculum, if you will) and tranferring it to the Didj handheld. Weekly spelling lists can be added to a game. That said, you can only add words that are already in a predefined database database. Depending the games you have, you’ll see more skill options, including language arts, math, and math facts.

Note: A parent account must have been created and information provided about who plays a game using this a given player name.

A Bit of Frustration
Once my daughter got her hands on the Didj she quickly put down the Leapster, but after a day or so she came to me saying she couldn’t save her Jet Pack Heroes game. I started to look into the matter, and found that she was right. I kept digging and found that Jet Pack Heroes is considered a mini (starter) game, designed with levels that can be completed quickly, and as such will not allow the state of the game to be saved. This was particularly frustrating for her in that is impacts her ability to acquire Bitz and customize the game. I wish I’d know about that when I purchased the Didj. Had I know I would have purchased another math game when I purchased the Didj handheld.

MangaHigh: Transtar

TransStar_kids_math_gamesTranStar is a transformation game in which you guide the TranStar entity through the perils of deep space, as it searches for the mysterious core. Use the awesome power of exotic space transformation phenomena to reflect, rotate, translate and enlarge TranStar into the safety of the StarGate.

I found and played more than a dozen transformation games, to give me a bit of context for what the MangaHigh team accomplished with TranStar. The objective of most transformation games seems to be the establishment of a cursory understanding of the concept of geometric transformation. In contrast, the ManagHigh objective for TranStar is for the player to take away a more in depth understanding of the concept of transformation and how the different types of transformation can work in concert to inform the orientation, position, and size of a shape.

The MangaHigh team crafted the presentation of the transformations such that they are cumulative. That is to say, that once reflection is introduced, it can be presented along with any transformation that follows. So right from the outset, the MangaHigh team had a more substantive approach than most who have tried to create a game around this subject.

TranStar plays very much like a puzzle game, where you have a piece that has to fit into a hole, but to get it into that hole, you have to use the transformations available to you. In contrast to the pace of “Save Our Dumb Planet”, it feels as if the player is much more in control. In “Save Our Dumb Planet” I often felt as if I was waiting for the game, but in TranStar it felt as if I could move things along. The game play was absorbing without the math test feel of “Save Our Dumb Planet”.

MangaHigh correlates game achievements to lesson objectives, for each game, but that’s to be expected if one is going to be GCSE compliant.

In TranStar, as with all MangaHigh games, the math is laid bare for the player use, manipulate, and enjoy.

Kudos to the MangaHigh team!

FTC: Full Disclosure

As of December 1, 2009, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is requiring bloggers who post reviews to disclose the source of the products they review. Dad’s Fun Math Games receives no remuneration or compensation for reviews. To date we’ve reviewed either free of charge or freemium websites (which have free access to basic features), so “quid pro quo” is not an issue. With freemium services Dad’s Fun Math Games will typically contact the provider of the service and ask for temporary full access to properly review the service.

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The reviews represent the honest impressions of the individual reviewers and are not intended as an endorsement.

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MangaHigh: Fun Math Games

mangahigh_fun_math_gamesSix Years
After six years or running King.com, a casual gaming company, Toby Rowland stepped down as Co-CEO…
However, in that time he noticed that the players on “King” developed significant skills through casual gaming. This prompted him to question whether it might be possible to make a different kind of game that would push players to take away even more skills.

It’s not so much that Rowland had an idea, but the educational games idea had him. He thought “Mathematics is the largest subject in education and education is the second biggest industry globally…” Not being a mathematician, he needed that voice, that touchstone to help give form to this new thing. So, he rang the only mathematician he knew, the energetic Marcus du Sautoy, who used to be a fellow student at Wadham College, Oxford. Professor Du Sautoy had recently been appointed to the position of Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, tasked with communicating science to the public. This was the beginning of Blue Duck Education Ltd. Du Sautoy would ultimately become the Chairman of the Board of Advisors for Blue Duck.

Hatchling
In the midst of a rather bleak educational landscape in which UK math proficiency had fallen to an all time low, Blue Duck Education Ltd. lauched MangaHigh.com .
Rowland’s vision of having fun math games that push the player to take away even more skill than he had observed at “King” was now a reality. MangaHigh’s games target kids from 11 to 16 years old, with the greater audience being innovative math educators and parents. The games themselves go beyond simple arithmetic, and help kids find the game in practicing algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, by solving real-world problems.

On launch day, MangaHigh.com presented five original, GCSE compliant games to the world: BIDMAS Blaster, Save Our Dumb Planet, Pyramid Panic, and Flower Power. A couple of months later, a new game called “Ice Ice Maybe”, was added.

What’s In The Box?
MangaHigh is a freemium site. Many of the games can be played free of charge, but to get the full benefit from the site, you have to sign-up for a paid subscription. The “User” account (for those who have registered, but not paid for premium content) and the “Member” account (for those who have registered and paid for premium content) differ in the following respects:

  • “Users” can play Prodigi games at the Easy Level <<>> “Members” can play unlimited Prodigi games (Easy, Medium, Hard and Extreme)

  • “Members” can Analyze progress and achievements via detailed reporting per lesson

  • “Members” Benefit from system recommendations for achieving personal goals via the to-do list

Like many subscription based education sites, MangaHigh has a Parent login that give a parent a window on the activity of a Member account and access to the Analysis tools. I have no gripes with the information presented and the analysis tool, however I would like to see an e-mail facility that would allow the report e-mailed to up to 5 addresses (similar to that found in the DreamBox Learning Parent Dashboard). This kind of functionality is a good way to keep the person (aunt, uncle, grandmother, or grandfather) who paid for the membership, in the loop.

Proof
I found the MangaHigh games rather addicting. They are games in the truest sense of the word, not just a high tech re-image of a typical math drill. These games are adaptive in difficulty (they learn from your responses) to keep the player experience engaging and entertaining.

BIDMAS Blaster is a calculating game in which the player apply the BIDMAS order of operation (Brackets, Indices, Division, Multiplication, Addition, and Subtraction) to calculate the code that will destroy the approaching Roborators or add to your arsenal.

This game is reminiscent of the old “Math Blaster” series… Frenetic from the start, this game can quickly escalate as it draws you into the world of BIDMAS.

Save Our Dumb Planet is a graphing game in which you solve algebraic equations to inform the trajectory of missiles that can destroy meteorites headed for Earth. A panel of three trash-talking scientist are on hand to add to the confusion as you attempt to select the correct equation and plot the necessary waypoints to launch and destroy the approaching meteorites.

For me this game had that math drill feeling. Don’t get me wrong, it was well crafted and thought out, but seemed like a math test.

Pyramid Panic is a Egyptian themed geometry game in which you have been mummified and trapped deep in the bowels of a pyramid. You must use your geometry skills to build bridges across the voids and extricate yourself from the pyramid, keeping out of the reach of Ammit, the mongrel demon.

The MangaHigh crew has done it again! This game crafts a real sense of urgency as the difficulty ratchets up.

Flower Power is a number order game in which you attempt to grow and harvest flowers to earn money. Sharpen your ordering skills by putting decimals, fractions, and percentages in the proper order. Once you’ve grown a full stem of flower, you have to decide whether to havest the stem or let the flowers be pollinated to grow more plants.

Although Flower Power is simple in concept, one has the distinct feeling of keeping many balls in the air.

Ice Ice Maybe is an number estimating game in which your objective is to assist four waddles of penguins in reaching the holiday paradise of Summer Isle. The penguins migration takes them across the perilous Estim Ocean, patrolled by insatiably hungry orca. You must use your estimation and approximation skills to position floating icebergs and bounce the penguins to safety, from glacier to glacier.

While this game has manages to create a sense of urgency, the game play is more linear than it is in Flower Power. However, positioning the iceberg is a complication, inasmuch as you’re learning the scale at the same time you’re trying to use it, so you may find yourself looking for values that aren’t there.

Long story short, the game is very cool in concept and execution… No pun intended.

Prodigi is, without a doubt, MangaHigh’s most significant achievement. It is a math learning engine that uses a database of hundreds of thousands of questions (as well as the solutions and hints) that have been submitted by math teachers. Prodigi is adaptive, so a student will have a highly individualized experience based on ability. It is designed to work in concert with the math games, introducing mathematical concepts as part of game-play and promoting understanding and instinctive response through repetitive problem-solving.

Verdict

MangaHigh.com has stepped up to the plate and hit a home run!

Math is part of the fabric of these games as opposed to something that has been bolted on (as is too often the case) and the games are commercial quality.

If most teachers presented math the way it is presented on MangaHigh, we wouldn’t have so many alienated math students.

Bravo to Toby Rowland, Dr. Marcus du Sautoy, and the entire MangaHigh team.

Encore! Encore!

SmartyCard Part2: I Like SmartyCard! Really, I Do…

SmartyCard Part2 If you read SmartyCard Part1, you know I like SmartyCard.

There are some things that could be better from a parent’s perspective, such as granular control of the reward catalog (so I can specify what is displayed). So, as to prevent my child purchasing something I find objectionable.

That said, I really like the SmartyCard concept… however, there was something about it that left me with that off balance, giving me that “roller-coaster speeding down hill” feeling. It took me a while to “plumb the depths of my own neuroses” to uncover the answer, but uncover it I did. I was rather surprised at the root cause of my discomfort. It was taint, that is to say, corruption by association.

I had let my growing disdain for Scholastic Books give me a uneasiness with SmartyCard, along with a bit of uncertainty about Gazillion (SmartyCard’s parent company) thown in for good measure.

SmartyCard had partnered with Scholastic Books in its “Summer Reading Challenge” to prevent summer slide. This was intended to be a “branding boost” for SmartyCard, but for me it had the opposite effect… I don’t like the turn toward the “commercial” that Scholastic Books has taken. They’re taking advantage of their reputation as a purveyor of educational books (with carte blanche access to classrooms), to expose our children to an increasing stream of toys and media tie-in products.

Beyond the schlock, this is where the angst starts for me… The SmartyCard – Scholastic partnership has the ability to kick open the door to Sponge Bob, Hanna Montana, and the like, “teaching” in our classrooms and computer labs. Some might think I’ve become unhinged, but I’m not the only parent that has a growing dissatisfaction with Scholastic… read these articles (“Teachers snub Scholastic toys“, “Scholastic misusing its book clubs?“, and “Does Scholastic Deserve a Failing Grade?“) a mere smattering of the total number.

To SmartyCard, “Don’t get tarred with a brush meant for someone else!”

The crew at SmartyCard is sharp, so I hope this “faux pas” was something attributable to the first steps of a new company, and is something that won’t be repeated.

My trepidation with Gazillion stems from what Gazillion is: An MMO gaming company. Gazillion it to SmartyCard as Disney is to NBC News… I get that. It has proven to take a company like Gazillion Entertainment to make something like SmartyCard work.

I believe that if SmartyCard is left alone, everything should be fine, but if Gazillion decides to leverage some of its deals (such as its 10 year deal with Marvel Entertainment, read Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, and Captain America) I hear the sound of that classroom door being kicked open once again.

SmartyCard Part1: Learn and Earn Educational Games

SmartyCardHomeSince SmartyCard offers a math curriculum for tweens and uses fun games and quizzes to present the material, I thought I’d see what it’s all about. However, in the midst of my research I realized that I had a bit too much for a single post so here’s Part1.

What Is SmartyCard?
SmartyCard is a prepaid web-based educational service that provides a “learn and earn” play experience aimed at “tweens” (3rd to 6th graders). The points children accumulate, by answering seven-out-of-ten activity questions correctly, can be redeemed for real and virtual rewards – such as DVDs, music from iTunes, books, toys, and access to popular virtual worlds like Club Penguin.

The SmartyCard website is well-crafted, colorful, and easy to navigate. The characters used on SmartyCard.com are friendly and engaging, but avoid the taint of Barney and Elmo. SmartyCard.com presents educational content that addresses reading, writing, math, social studies, cultural studies, technology and science. This content was developed in partnership with e-learning leaders Learning.com, Ignite Learning, and LearnStar.

Thus far, ten virtual worlds that have partnered with SmartyCard: Bella Sara, Cartoon Doll Emporium, Club Penguin, Elf Island, Planet Cazmo, Stardoll, ZooKazoo, Zwinky Cuties, Neopets, and Webkinz, though the last two are only selling physical merchandise as rewards. Other SmartyCard partners include the likes of Kajeet, Nickelodeon, and Scholastic.

Is It Safe For Kids? Read the rest of this entry »

DreamBox Learning K-2 Math

This post is more personal than analytical to me, in that, this is the first time I’ve written about my daughter, who is 1st grader this year.

I had already written an article about DreamBox Learning K-2 Math and had done quite a bit of research in an effort to compare and contrast subscription educational websites that claim to have fun math games. I was quite impressed by DreamBox Learning, so I asked my wife to take a look at the website. I had a pretty good feel for how she would react, but had no idea as to which points would resonate with her. Read the rest of this entry »

Timez Attack

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