Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Chairs! game: a history

Chairs! started the whole thing. 

Like many organic chemistry instructors and professors, I teach the conformational isomers concept, Newman projections and cyclohexane chairs, in the first few weeks of organic chemistry. I also tell my students that this idea is truly esoteric.  They are now part of the select ‘brethren’ for whom rotation around carbon-carbon single bonds is valued.  

Yes, esoteric, but also yes, important. This is an introduction to learning about projections and taking three-dimensional models and flattening them into two-dimensions. They need to be able to draw and, more importantly, see and understand these drawings. This skill is not emphasized in previous chemistry classes, so for them this visual-spatial concept is very difficult. It will also come back to haunt students later, such as with elimination reactions.

So, how could I possibly make a game of this rather obscure chemistry concept?!

I have been playing ‘The Chair Game’ for years at my white board. I draw two big ‘chairs’ on the board, and point to the carbon vertices and say either up/down or axial/equatorial, and the class has to respond, together. It’s fun, different, a bit silly, and gets students involved.

I used this white board game as a model for the first OChemPrep game. A fabulous former student, an MIT-sophomore, and I put together a JavaScript version in the summer of 2013. She was toying with coding and I was playing with e-learning. I used this online game with my summer ‘boot camp’ students that summer.

From there, I decided to devise a bunch of other game concepts and presented these ideas to a local consulting firm that helps tech start-ups get off the ground. My good friend, Carl, is a partner in this very appropriately named firm called, Brilliant Chemistry, or BC. They helped me build the game mechanics and design of the most expansive idea, based on mechanisms. That game is truly breath-taking and beautiful, but, oh, SO expensive to code and develop.

So, I kept coming back to the Chair game. I could afford Chairs.

I had another fabulous student, also now at MIT, do the preliminary coding for a touch screen version of Chairs during his senior project. I paid BC to help him with this project. But there is only so much a high school senior can accomplish during a short 5-week internship project.

My co-founder, Joe, and I have put together this Chair game over the last few months. He’s the game guy and I am the chemistry lady. We work great together. I teach him chemistry, he teaches me game design.

I knew there was something special when I could not stop playing the beta-version of our game in August during vacation. I kept telling my husband, it was all part of testing and development. (Yeah, yeah.)  Once we added the cool bluesy music track, it got even more addictive.

So now we have great game with 13 levels. (Joe just told me about level 13, I thought it stopped at 12.) My top score after hours of play-time is 150. I have cracked level 10, but no further. I freak out a bit when I get beyond 120 points and start making mistakes.

I did a classroom trial with my 40 or so organic chemistry students. All of them had a traditional lesson during which I introduced the cyclohexane concept. They also had access to my set of videos. They were divided them into two sub-groups—those who could play the game before the next class and those that could not. I gave them all a four-point quiz about cyclohexane substituents as class started. The results from this little study are striking. Students were FAR more likely to earn 3 or 4 out of 4 if they had played the game, even for as little as 5 minutes.

The students then played Chairs! throughout the class period and I gave them a different four-point quiz. Over 90% of the students of them improved on their initial scores—excluding, of course, those with 4/4 on the first quiz.

Yes, I was very pleased with learning outcomes. It’s difficult not to improve understanding, when you can practice over and over (and over) by playing a game. That’s one of the main ideas of game-based learning. The trick, of course, is to make a game that students will actually play.

It was amazing to see how much they liked the Chairs! game. I received an email at 11pm that night from Cathy: “I need to stop playing this game! I tried to break 1000, but I messed up.” (She earned 955.) And a text from Jackie the next day, saying she would be late for cross country practice with a screen shot with a score of 2056(!). Even if students were scoring in the ‘normal’ range of 30 – 100, they were having fun solving the puzzles.

We are hoping to get our game out to everyone as soon as development and Apple will allow. An Android version is also in the works. My students have devised all sorts of essential features and in-app purchases to make the game even better. I have written them all down and sent them to Joe. Right now, the goal is a simple, free game with a short non-interactive tutorial section. Bells and whistles to follow.

Watch out for Chairs! And make time to play this addictive puzzle game. (Even if organic chemistry is not part of your past, present, or future.)

(I had to add an exclamation point at the end, because someone else already had a Chairs app.)

Here's the link:!/id916843853?ls=1&mt=8

Saturday, August 23, 2014

BCCE2014: Keeping the boat afloat!

A year ago in May, my history colleague (@mahabs9) gave me my first lesson in Twitter. 

At the time I had no idea what even a hashtag was. (Why are folks putting pound signs all over the place and didn't they forget the .com on their @name?) I had just started my company and my producer set up a Twitter and this blog for me and said "You need to do this." Great. More things on my plate.

Twitter has been a great adventure for me and culminated with a week of chemistry collaboration at the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education in August, and, best of all, the journey continues! 

I connected fairly early with a set of chemistry teachers through #chemchat. I knew @BCCE2014 was in my backyard at GVSU in Allendale, MI. Doug Ragan (@dragan39) was putting together a symposium on global collaboration in chemistry. I decided my What's UR Rxn? chemistry blog project seemed to fit with the theme. (My presentation is at the bottom of this post.)

Off to downtown Grand Rapids!
It was wonderful to meet face-to-face with these inspirational teachers who I had only known on through Twitter. I was a avid spectator in their #molympics events last fall and had watched as the library of short videos came together last spring. I had learned a ton about flipped teaching, had discussions about the new AP curriculum, and debated different methods of reaching students from many of these folk. 

Another great part of the BCCE2014 experience was the interaction between higher educators and secondary educators. I was very much impressed with the concept that one could flip a huge lecture section of chemistry. Professors spoke honestly about their experiences as chemistry 'teachers' as opposed to chemistry 'lecturers.' Both groups brought different mindsets and skills sets to the table to the benefit of both.

Our symposium crew.
Our symposium was on the very last day of BCCE2014 and coming back from a night on the town on Tuesday, we bemoaned the fact that we would be talking mostly to ourselves. (Heck, we had been doing that for a year on Twitter, we could have stayed home!) We had a full classroom for our symposium and even at the end of the conference, teachers and professors were learning enthusiastically from each other. 

After BCCE, we have kept the discussion open about more collaboration. Dave Prindle (@dprindle) has put together for a more permanent home for #molympics, video warm-up library, and other #chemchat ideas. 

Eric Postuma-Adams (@eposthuma) shared a first-day-of-school activity in which students work in groups to build a boat out and see how many pennies it can hold before it sinks. Doug created a hashtag, #buildaboat, to follow along as many of us try this out with our students in the next week. So, if you are inspired, join us as we work together to create interesting, thoughtful, informative chemistry lessons for our students. And definitely, feel free to collaborate with us! 

Also, when I checked #buildaboat today, I found this marvelous tweet from some real boat builders in Turkey. Let's lose sight of the shore for our students, knowing that we can work together to keep that boat afloat! 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Praying for the Epiphany

The first quarter of my sophomore year at the University of Minnesota kicked my butt. I went into that year with nary a B on my record anywhere. Then I had organic chemistry. Five lectures a week with Professor Raymond Dodson. I had no idea how to learn the subject; it mystified me. Sometime in late November, the light went on and the mechanism arrows started to make sense. By that point, it was way too late for an A, but the next two quarters of organic chemistry seemed pretty easy. The organic chemistry epiphany had happened.

Mechanisms became puzzles to solve. In fact, in graduate school, I loved the Name Reaction assignments of Professor Norm Lebel at Wayne State. We were given a giant list of reactions and had to draw out the mechanisms for all of them. At the time, there weren’t the great internet resources there are now. I spent hours playing with the arrows to make each reaction work.

I have been teaching organic chemistry to high school juniors and seniors now for twenty years. My course follows the standard organic curriculum of a college course. I am blessed with six beautiful hoods and great equipment. My students graduate from high school with three solid years of chemistry under their belts: introductory, AP, and organic chemistry. Most of them are seniors and their grade at semester is the primary focus of their learning. (Yes, it would be great if this weren’t true…) Just as I did, they study and keep ‘praying for the epiphany’ to happen as we have come to say in my class.

Teaching in class sizes of between 10 and 16, I can easily see when students' arrows are not doing what they are supposed to do. I love the title of this paper, Decorating with Arrows..., as that is exactly what students do when they do not understand how to map the reaction mechanisms. Eventually, nearly all of my students attain mechanistic mastery, with the instant feedback of my small classroom an important part of the picture.

So, how to scale this kind of educational experience to those students who cannot go to my expensive private school near Detroit, MI? And do it in a way that makes students want to understand organic chemistry? In fact, design a method so that 8-year-olds or 80-year-olds or anyone in between can play the puzzles that make up organic chemistry. That’s the big idea behind my beautiful organic chemistry games.

It’s been quite a journey from my classroom into the world of start-up founder. Yes, ups and downs, pivots, roadblocks, all different kinds of metaphors are appropriate as one creates a business out of a concept. We have wireframes, game mechanics, visual design, prototypes, and a patent application. We have academic partners for beta-testing. We have a fabulous pitch deck that details the value proposition and the roadmap of sales channels. And we are building these games and they are awesome.

So, keep an eye on my Twitter feed as we move toward the launch of our first game, Chairs, this summer. The plan right now is to use that game to jumpstart a Kickstarter campaign to build Cyclo6, the mechanism game. And once that’s out, students will be playing for the epiphany instead of praying for it!

This post written for #realtimechem week. #realtimechemcarnival

Julia Winter @ochemprep

Monday, May 12, 2014

It Started with a Tweet: Start-Up Weekend EDU

I wrote last July about an event which
  •      Lasted three days over a weekend and sleep was limited
  •      Gathered passionate people together to accomplish a common goal
  •      Was difficult to describe to anyone who had not been part of it
That blog post about the Great Lakes Relay is the most widely read post that I have written.

The Twin Cities Start-Up Weekend EDU had so many similarities to the GLR (or The Relay, as most of us call it), it’s unnerving. Though access to bathrooms was definitely a big plus in this event. (You need to read the other post to understand.)

I followed Kristin Daniels (@kadaniels) when I was very new to Twitter last summer, I was learning to flip my classroom and she seemed to be interesting. About a month ago, she tweeted about Start-up Weekend EDU in Minneapolis. Within an hour, I had a plane ticket and had emailed my school director that I would be missing a couple days of school for an Ed Tech “conference.”

I have been near-obsessed with my idea of creating organic chemistry games for the last ten months. My whole goal is bring the same kind of instant feedback (and joy, excitement, and fun!) that I deliver in my classroom to students everywhere through cool mobile games. I had wire frames and plans, and a notebook FULL of puzzles, but I was not moving forward. That is, until Kristin's tweet.

(Kristin was the first of my teacher tweet-folk to become more than just a handle. I recognized her right away.)

We started building my game Cyclo6 on Friday night. Jason had heard my practice pitch and was the first to jump on my team. David seemed to take control and off we went—or was it Matt?  At that point, everyone looked alike to me! I did not know ANY of them. I explained my ideas and they started doing their coding thing.

My parents in Plymouth were my bed-and-breakfast and rental car agency. I did not see them but for coffee after my run each morning.

By Saturday evening, Ryan had add made great progress in making cool molecule-looking things dance across a screen. I had spoken with business folk from Pearson, GoKart Labs, and really connected with Curt Prins—a guy with Michigan roots. Pat was a fellow chemistry teacher, and we hit it off from the get-go. We worked on the slide deck until the doors closed on Saturday evening. All these people helping to make my dream come to life!

Sunday was all about the pitch. Whoa, the work we did was intense. (My team made me go take a walk a few times—I think they were a bit nervous about my sanity!)  Every word analyzed. Every slide minimalized. Dark slides, yet oh, so cool! My team would not let me see the finished game until it was ready, even then I did not really see it in action until the actual pitch.

The whole weekend was a remarkable and emotional experience. (Yup, I got a bit choked up at the end of my presentation…) I thank those who put on the event and everyone else who built those other awesome educational products.

My Cyclo6 team were rock stars. All of them. I can’t thank them enough.

So next stop, Detroit TechWeek LAUNCH start-up contest. Playing with the big dogs, now. I have a prototype, a pitch deck, and the confidence to get this business moving forward.

Amazing, all because of a Tweet.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Getting new glasses--my journey into game design

I was one of those kids who needed glasses in 1st grade. My eyesight continued to get worse throughout my childhood years. In fact, I was part of a study in which I had my eyes dilated during upper elementary school to keep me from becoming even more near-sighted. (BTW, wearing bifocals and wrap-around sunglasses and looking stoned all day was not a good thing for the social standing of a 12-year-old girl!)

So what does this have to do with game design? I do not see the world clearly without assistance. Over the last eight months I have been building a company around games for chemistry, specifically organic chemistry. In order to develop teaching games, one needs to look at pedagogy with new eye wear, and thanks to my game guy, my son, and most of all, my students, game design has even changed the way I think about how I teach in my classroom. The focus has become less about the teaching of the concepts and more on the discovery of the ideas.

Last fall, I hired a consulting firm (Brilliant Chemistry--really, the name of the company--chemistry as a metaphor only) to help me devise a road map to take some games I had put together with a former student and turn them into a business. The 'Chemists,' in turn, hired a game guy, Joe Engalan, to take a school teacher and turn her into game designer. I have to give a ton of credit to Joe. Our Basecamp site is filled with long back-and-forth discussions about both games and chemistry. There were many “with all due respects” and “don’t take this the wrong way,” but I slowly began to see the light and start to understand. 

“But, you're not *studying* organic chem (and dealing with all of the angst and baggage associated with *studying*), you're playing a game and learning the mechanics of organic chemistry in order to move forward in the game.” (Joe)

In the midst of these discussions, my 23-year-old son, Peter, came home for Thanksgiving. At the end of the weekend, we went to a Coney Island and talked about game design throughout the meal and all the way to the airport as he returned to his home in Phoenix. For a good two hours we talked. He was even more pointed in his comments to me. “No, mom, no one wants to play a game that even resembles school.” (Great, I taught the young man for two years in high school; even more of Joe’s ‘angst and baggage.’)

So, being the deliberative type, I needed to experience these concepts myself and bought some games. I really liked Division Cell (nice design, from my second country, Finland) until I got stuck in the middle and felt like I was just going in circles. I still love to play Strata, a beautiful ribbon-weaving game that never seems to end. (The Strata folk, Graveck of Minneapolis, also wrote a nice piece about the game’s development.)

The best source of game design knowledge came from my students. They coached me through Flappy Bird before it disappeared. I never scored more than 2 on that game. (This Flappy craze came right during midyear exams and I wonder whether my students’ grades were affected by that damn bird.) They showed me a trivia quiz game in which I answered questions about chemistry against some unknown person. (I won.)

Block 7 Organic Chemistry
But the most amazing episode in my study of games came with a beautiful puzzle game called Perloo. A former student had worked with these Dutch designers and tweeted about missing her train due to being “lost in Perloo.” I downloaded the game immediately. I played it a bit, and got frustrated with the lack of rules, but would come back to it over and over.

I had it on my iPad and showed it to a few students. A group of them spent the bulk of the class period working on the different levels of Perloo. (OK, so they should have been working on organic problems, but, heck, they are seniors!) My iPad was passed to the next group of students and the game continued into the next class. I often tell my students that learning chemistry requires “butt time,” that is, “sit your butt down and learn it.” Not an easy task. Here I watched students, some of whom have struggled in my chemistry classes for two years, concentrating all their collective effort to solve tough conceptual problems using a game. Granted, Perloo is not an 'educational' game, but that does not mean it is not teaching something. The ah-ha! moment, the epiphany, happened for me on that day. I reached into my pocket and put on my new glasses. I saw what Joe, Peter, and my students have been trying to show me over the last few months.

So, now, every moment I have free, I am thinking about how to take the overall concepts of chemistry and distilling them down to simple terms in order to put them into a game. Games which will have no explicit rules or didactic teaching. Puzzles. Jerome Bruner in his book The Process of Education, first published in 1960, postulated that if ideas are presented in small pieces even young children can grasp the inductive reasoning skills and intuition necessary to understand complex ideas of physics, geometry, and even calculus.

Hey, with my games, they should be able to grasp organic chemistry, too.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What's UR Rxn? Putting it together

Since the beginning of this blog project, I have had students make decisions in the development and design of the assignment. The final step of the process was to create the actual blog page. We put together a rough outline of the layout on Blogger and then played with the template designer  for a few days to create the look we liked. I had some fun with my document camera and my graphite model, so originally I placed this rather busy image behind the blog.

I was quickly overruled by my students, and this much calmer white-on-white image of glassware was composed and substituted.

While one group worked on the layout, others brainstormed the tagline and the description of the blog. Helena designed our Chem Bee from our school's logo. Neha wrote the introductory post and Vivek edited it for her. So our Chem Blog was ready for the world!  

Here is the link to the student's blog:
We also have a Twitter account for the blog:  @Whats_UR_rxn

Each student and I work together to design each blog post. These posts will be added to the blog at a rate of 2-3 per week. The whole concept of publishing their work to a global audience is enthralling to say the least. Please stop by, read and comment! (And thanks to Lowell Thomson in Bucharest, Romania, my students have had comments posted from the other side of the Atlantic. Check out his chemistry students' blog, too.)

Here are the links to my posts in succession for ideas on how to incorporate blogging into a science classroom. I will be presenting this idea at the Biennial Conference for Chemical Educators 2014 at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Michigan in August. (West Michigan is a beautiful place--especially the Lake Michigan beach.)

What's UR Rxn?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

What's UR Rxn? A chemistry class blog, part 3

This is the final installment of my development of a chemistry writing blog project for my Organic and AP chemistry classes. I will cede the keyboard to my students for the next post as we launch our “What’s UR Rxn?” blog.

One of the problems for science teachers assigning writing projects is the necessity to assess the student’s writing. It can be a very intimidating process, especially for teachers who are more used to black-and-white answers instead of the shades in between associated with the more subjective grading of writing. For the last five years, I have done a writing/role-play project called The Ethanol Project.  (I published this project in the NSTA journal The Science Teacher in March, 2013.) The journal reviewers wanted a “turn-key” lesson, and so I produced a two-page detailed table of writing objectives and expectations. This blog project has a much looser rubric, because I wanted to allow students to write about science or chemistry in their own voice and with a style suited to their topic.

I have spent the last two days reading and assessing the student’s posts and also their comments as peer-reviewers. Oh, it has been joyful for me NOT to be reading about ethanol!!  My students wrote about deer antler spray, cranberries, crowdsourcing antibiotics, Indian silk, the need for pot-testing labs, honey, caffeine, turmeric, snowflakes, and the biology of listening to music. So many interesting topics, it was not as much of a chore as I thought it would be. 

Another goal of this project was to make it completely paper-less and cloud-based. I did not want my email inbox filled with documents to transfer to various folders. Just as each student had a Microsoft SkyDrive folder for their documents (rough draft, two peer edits, the final draft, and a checklist which included a list of sources, image sources, and an honor statement), I decided to create an assessment page in a Microsoft OneNote folder for each student. As I went through the SkyDrive folder, I would toggle over to the OneNote folder and write comments and grade their blog posts, in addition to commenting on their editing. I did not want to put the assessments into the SkyDrive folder as they are open to everyone, so the OneNote folder allowed for private assessment space. I can now email each page to each student. The following table was copied into each OneNote page.

Rubric Grading Template
Final draft (50 points)
1.     Creative title (5) 
2.     Writing is thoughtful, organized and uses a colloquial voice, as opposed to an analytical one. (25) 

3.     No grammar or spelling errors (5) 
4.     Image(s) must supplement the writing. (5) 
5.     General creativity (5) 

6.     All requirements met: at least one current source, source a minimum 400 words, title, hyperlinks, and a copyright-free image (5) (Bonus points for primary sources.)


45-50 = 100
40-44 = 95
35-39 = 90
30-34 = 85
25-29 = 80
20-24 = 75

Yes, I have a rather generous grading scheme. The beauty of the student peer-review process (and the fact that I think our school’s English and history teachers do an amazing job of teaching writing!) is that there were very few distracting errors in grammar, spelling, or sentence syntax. Also, my organic chemistry students’ grades were pretty low coming into this assignment due to just finishing units on spectroscopy and stereochemistry, so they needed a bit of a grade boost!

The chemistry blog project has definitely been a success: it was fun to develop with my students, interesting to implement, and even rather enjoyable to assess. My AP chemistry students will be writing their posts during second semester. I listed this project on my AP chemistry audit document as my method to meet the Curriculum Requirement 4:  “the opportunity to connect their knowledge of chemistry and science to major societal or technological components.” I have checked the box required by the College Board, but I would have done this project even without that requirement. 

You’ll get to read my students’ posts once they have produced their own blog site

I would love to know “What’s UR Rxn?”

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What's UR Rxn? A chemistry class blog, part 2

My organic chemistry students were given the “What’s UR Rxn?” blog project rubric shortly after my last blog post. We spent the latter part of one of our one-hour blocks to discuss ideas for their blogs. I had a stack of C&E News from the American Chemical Society for them to peruse. It was fun to watch them try out ideas on me and on each other. Their topics all were supposed to be different from one another, and I was very surprised when the first student to “shotty” an idea, said loudly, “I get chemical weapons in Syria!” 

The students were given seven days to write the rough draft.  I think one of the hardest parts for some of them was to change their writing style to fit the project and to fit themselves.  I told them that I did not want, “blah, blah, blah, citation, paraphrase, paraphrase, citation.”  Not that the teachers in other classes encourage this kind of writing, but I think the possibility of being caught plagiarizing looms large and it tends to make their writing choppy and unnatural. 

Prior to the peer-edit day, I set up a folder on my Microsoft SkyDrive for the project and created a folder for each student, accessible to all for viewing and editing.  (Full disclosure—I did my best to embrace Google Drive and Google Docs over the summer in my online class and even dabbled with Evernote and Dropbox.  I never felt comfortable until I got the new version of Office on my laptop in August with Skydrive, Word, OneNote, and Outlook all integrated together. Sounds odd, but it was like coming home! And no, I’m not paid by Microsoft, but our school has some very high connections with Microsoft, so we have always been a Microsoft school.)

At first I was not exactly sure how to assign peer-editors for each post, but as a class we decided to use a random-number generator.  I assigned each student a number and we called out numbers until everyone was matched. After the first edit, they could invite others or choose their next edit. All the folders were open to everyone, so they opened the rough draft, saved as name_edit, and used the markup tools in Word, and away they went. It was completely silent!  (At least block 1 was, block 7 can never be truly silent…) Students gave each other great, constructive criticism, (edits in red):

[This paragraph is definitely more complicated and confusing than the previous paragraph. I would suggest simplifying the process more so normal people who don’t have too thorough of an understanding of chemistry can follow along.]  (I like the fact that ‘normal’ people don’t have an understanding of chemistry!)

Or “seemingly invulnerability yielded, [You are using an adverb on a noun.]

The students were then given another seven day period to make changes and post their final draft in the folder. They were not allowed to email them to me.  A few tried, but I told them to go back to the SkyDrive link and make it work.

Another fun piece of the assignment was that they had to pick an image/avatar for themselves for the end of the blog and add a 140 character description so the blog readers would know something about them. Here is Abdullah’s picture—I love that he included his mom.

Or Helena’s description:  “I’m Lena, currently a high school senior. I’m not sure what I want to do in the future, but I know what I’m passionate about. If you like art, 90’s bands, or Woody Allen films, we’ll get along just fine. And if you don’t, we’ll still get along fine.”

Pure Helena.  (Though maybe a few characters too long.)

What’s UR Rxn?