Mission Possible: Making Math Fun Through Games – An Education Hackathon

 

The Intel® Code for Good Math Game Event was a rather ambitious undertaking for two reasons. First, the topic of math and figuring out a strategy to make it fun and educational is a tough mission in and of itself. Secondly, the hackathon was a coordinated event involving interns and volunteers at three different Intel® sites over the weekend of July 19 and 20, 2014.

Teaching curricula for schools is driven by standards in various subjects including math. For math, K-12 should reflect a progression of skills through number operations, algebra, fractions, geometry, statistics, and probability. Test scores provide feedback to teachers on the effectiveness of their plans in delivering these skills. Sometimes, however, students feel that they have to learn math to satisfy test scores but that there is seemingly no connection to the real world for that knowledge. This was the challenge that the participants faced in this multisite hackathon. What kinds of applications can be created over just a weekend that will draw in math students, capture their imaginations, and teach them key math concepts at the same time?  Let’s find out.

The Set Up

The Intel office sites hosting this event were located in Hillsboro, Oregon, Chandler, Arizona and in Folsom, California. Saturday morning, student interns and volunteers were oriented by teachers who attended and shared the background and challenges they have been experiencing with teaching math skills. In Chandler, we were honored to have two guest speakers—Melinda Romero, Executive Director of Staff Development and Instructional Services at Chandler Unified School District, and Allison Davis, 2014 recipient of Arizona's Presidential Award for Excellence in Elementary Mathematics Teaching. They showed a few of the games that had been developed for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics by Illuminations, a project designed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and supported by the Verizon* Foundation. NCTM serves as a content partner for Thinkfinity, the Verizon Foundation's free online professional learning community. Once the hackathon participants at each site had an understanding of the problem and some clues from math teachers as to what was needed, the participants were ready to start developing their own games.

The teams independently began to brainstorm ideas and agree on a direction. They identified components for their game idea and divided up the work into three general areas: the UI, the backend, and the engine. As the first day progressed, the game idea began to take shape. By late afternoon, the Arizona team had completed the networking using the cloud network. The UI was almost done, and the functionality was being developed progressively. The teams continued to work through the night adding more functionality, including sounds, and working through issues and identifying the next chunks of work that still needed to be done.

By Sunday, the teams were getting tired but were still intent on delivering an application that they could be proud to demonstrate to the other teams. They continued working throughout the day adding more graphics, fine tuning functionality, and further developing their game ideas. Late Sunday afternoon, it was time to wrap-up the hackathon, and the teams were gathered together to share their work.

Apps in a Weekend

Here is a brief description of the apps that were created over the weekend at the three sites:

  • The “Waveform Generator” is a basic waveform scrolling graph that allows modification of parameters. By changing the level of decibels, you can watch the sound waves change into patterns. This was particularly interesting from a musical perspective.
  • The “Math Jump” app is geared to students with the math equivalent of dyslexia. The object of the game is to gain points by jumping around and catching bubbles which solve arithmetic problems. This app runs in a browser on both a PC and a tablet.
  • A graphing game called “Hero Graphs” enables a large group of students to take turns and play using one or more devices. It has several levels of difficulty ranging from easy to hard. The object of the game is to launch a cannonball through a series of objects (kites, birds, etc.), ultimately hitting a sinister pirate parrot using math functions. 

  • The “Fuel Up” app features pre-calculus and algebra problems. The player is operating a spaceship and trying to reach Martians but running out of fuel. To refuel, the player has to solve the math problems. Every movement expends fuel, so it is critical to the game to select the right answer or risk running adrift.  The winner is the first player who saves Wally the Martian.
  • The “Graph to the Future” app is about practicing graphing equations. The game shows a bunch of stars on a graph displaying X and Y axis. Players enter a function for the trajectory of the stars. A DeLorean “Back to the Future”-style car drives through the graph based on the function. The player accumulates points for each star that the DeLorean drives through.
  • “Number Battle” was created to drill students on basic arithmetic. An answer appears in the middle of the screen, and two students compete with each other to click on the equation that matches up with that answer. The fastest correct answer wins, and a “treat” appears for positive reinforcement.
  • A touch-screen app called “Bubble App” emphasizes addition and subtraction. The object of the game is to touch bubbles that rain down from the top of the screen. Each bubble contains a positive number, a negative number, or a bonus multiplication factor. The running point total is updated as the player touches the bubbles. The idea is to net the highest number of points in a minute.
  • Robot on a Budget” makes math cool by solving a real world problem of optimizing the fuel budget for transporting robot parts to the assembly station. The cost for transport varies based on the weight of the parts and the cost for the fuel. Players are on a budget in this game, and there is a timer to add complexity.

Conclusion

There is something magical about being able to take an idea like a game and actually turn it into a tangible reality before your very eyes. The enthusiasm of the participants (fueled no doubt by lots of junk food and sleep deprivation) was contagious throughout the event. The continuous activity and creative streaming in the hackathon made it fun for the participants, and the time flew by. It was a rewarding experience for everyone. So what happens to these prototypes? The participants can develop them more if they wish, or if a nonprofit wants to take the idea/prototype and run with it, they're free to do so. Ideally, we'd put them in touch with the development team. I’m holding out for the sinister parrot game. Arrgh. Shiver me timbers!

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