Here's three things that naturally draw fascination from kids: new technology, games, and physics. Most kids will readily recognize the first two of these interests, but physics probably isn't even on their radar yet. During a time of educational crisis in America, how can we get our students to go from a simpleminded, consumer driven appetite for mobile devices toward a real academic interest in the scientific discipline that makes all this technology possible? In other words, how do we get kids to wonder, "how does this thing work?"
As far-fetched as it sounds, Angry Birds, the incredibly popular mobile game, may have the educational answer in its sequel Angry Birds Space. This new $0.99 download (the website says $4.99, but it was $0.99 on my phone's app store) catapaults an app that has already set all-time records in consumer ratings to a new level by making a simple twist in the addictive game play for which Angry Birds is famous. Angry Birds Space simply modifies the physics that send our disgruntled feathered heros hurtling towards the smug and snoozing swine that are their mortal enemies.
Once out of the earth's atmosphere, the game's gravity takes on a new spin. Instead of flight trajectory that drops toward Earth, the birds either hurtle in a straight line through the vacuum of space or curve around the gravity of any asteroids where pigs may be hiding. To illustrate this law of physics, Angry Birds Space shows gamers the expected trajectory path of the avian missiles and includes spheres around dense objects to illustrate their gravitational pull.
From a gaming standpoint, Angry Birds Space is just as fun and addictive as its predecessor. The puzzles to solve get more challenging as the player progresses through the game and is presented with new obstacles and environments. Also, there are several new powers granted to the birds which are fun to play around with as the pigs become harder to reach. Like the last version, Angry Birds Space also includes catchy sound effects and neat background illustrations for extra eye-candy.
Even more worthy of conversation though, are the educational implications of this game. Think of what the Angry Bird franchise has just done in terms of introducing people to basic concepts in physics. By mastering the first Angry Birds, players gained a baseline understanding of how gravity works on the terrestrial plane. Objects always fall to Earth, but not necessarily in the same way depending on their mass, velocity, and centers of gravity. Through various levels, the concepts of slope and friction were also covered and so on, all while players are entertained through top-notch casual gaming. Now scaffold up to the next lesson.
Enter Angry Birds Space. Through a short, inane back story about pigs stealing bird eggs and making off for space, players are now introduced to a more advanced course on physics. They see that in the vacuum of space there is often very little gravity, so an object will fly in a straight line and tend to stay in motion unless another object blocks its path. In scientific terms, this is inertia. Players also see that objects of greater density like asteroids have their own gravitational pulls that influence the movements of bird, pig, and other space junk of lesser mass. The best part is that all of this learning occurs almost unnoticed while the players are having fun.
Angry Birds Space may not be the classroom science teacher's dream, but it is a good start to a viable educational model in the future. The bottom line of 21st century education is that students can no longer be taught by the same methods which taught their parents' generation. Today, learning must be relevant to students' lives, occur in the complex technological context of their social relationships, and all without sacrificing rigor. Certainly, Angry Birds may be a little light on the rigor, but it has the first two requirements down. Casual gaming is now a big part of most mobile device users' lives and the ability to share scores and compete through Facebook and other social media adds in a relationship component. With a little educational tweaking, physics based games like Angry Birds Space could soon make their way into science curricula.
Given the growth of mobile computing, the possibilities for proliferating game-based educational media are almost endless. To illustrate advanced concepts like outer space physics thirty years ago, teachers had to rely on chalkboard drawings, textbook diagrams, and bulky TV/VHS carts. Now we should see students with homework assignments that ask them to solve science based scenarios on iPads and post their lab reflections on Facebook. Think medical case studies, NASA simulations, virtual chemistry labs and more. No longer can we allow ourselves to take technological advances for granted as toys to distract us. Rather we should capitalize on these advancements as educational tools that can and should move us away from relying on the outdated, failing brick-and-mortar models of traditional schooling.