Game for Some Physics?

October 11, 2012 

by Robin Tricoles

Everywhere you go, there it is. Physics. We encounter it from the time we wake up (when sound waves emanating from the alarm clock enter our ears) to the time we head for bed (when we transfer our body heat to chilly sheets on a winter’s night). In fact, we have lots of experience with the subject even though we might not know it.

But Douglas Clark knows it. His aim is to teach us to reinterpret our daily experiences in ways that will support our formal understanding of scientific concepts. Clark is a learning scientist, someone who studies learning via multiple fields, be it psychology, anthropology, or computer science. He’s particularly interested in how children learn physics. 

“We have a lot of experiences in our everyday lives about how we think things happen,” says Clark, a professor of science education at Vanderbilt University.“Often those intuitive ideas are very good on a day-to-day level of making sense of things and getting through the world, but there are times when those ideas make it hard to learn the more formal, powerful ways of thinking, the ways scientists might use.”

For instance, our experience tells us that if something feels hotter relative to another object, it probably is. Our experience also tell us that metal objects tend to feel hotter or colder than other objects in a room, depending on the room’s temperature. Therefore, we conclude there must be a temperature differential between the two. But this may not be so. 

“Kids are absolutely positive that metal objects in the same room as nonmetal objects are a different temperature,” says Clark. “This is a great example of their intuition getting them through most aspects of everyday life. But in this case, their intuition is not accurate, and at it’s at odds with a more formal understanding of what’s happening.”

Douglas Clark Quote.jpgWhat’s happening is that thermal conductivity is at work here. That is, metal objects conduct heat and cold more effectively than other materials such as wood. “So, the students’ everyday understanding tends to interfere with the idea of thermal conductivity,” says Clark.

What’s more, school tends to focus on formal ways of understanding something, and although those ways may be very powerful, they tend to be removed from student’s intuitive understanding of ideas, says Clark. As a result, people may not be able to connect what they’ve learned through formal circumstances to their environment and thus not use it to make sense of their world.

To fill this potential gap, Clark and his colleagues develop digital games, grounded in learning research, to mesh formal learning with intuition. In fact, playing the games fosters an intuitive understanding of basic scientific and analytical concepts while the games’ dialogue, which accompanies the play, encourages a more formal and contemplative understanding of the subject at hand. For example, students get to navigate through digital space but must do so efficiently: maximizing fuel while minimizing travel time, all with no accidents or collisions. 

“Core scientific concepts can be hard to understand and by the time you reach middle school, people keep thinking about them in the same way until they’ve had experiences that help them think about the concepts more deeply,” says Clark. “The trick is to help people reinterpret their everyday ideas in terms of formal ideas.” 


Douglas Clark, PhD, is an associate professor in the Teaching and Learning Development Department at Vanderbilt University. Clark’s work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation. To learn more about his research, please visit the Scaffolding Understanding by Redesigning Games for Education (SURGE) website.

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