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Play-Research-Present: GBL at PlayMaker School Using “Reach for the Sun”

“Our ultimate goal with this Play-Research-Present process is to have kids be very focused and research-oriented in a playful way.”

It’s the Friday afternoon before Spring Break.  In the classroom this usually makes for mayhem with students bouncing and chattering excitedly about everything but school.  However, at our PlayMaker School in New Roads, students are actively engaged in learning about photosynthesis, plant pollination and reproduction. They shout out words like stamen and pollen saturation as they huddle excitedly around a beautiful sunflower that they are actively trying to grow. Already this flower has died multiple times. But each time students are eager to plant a new seed and continue to grow their understanding about how sun, nutrients and water work together to create life. How can 38 sixth graders observe and begin to comprehend these complicated systems so quickly over the course of only an hour?

They are playing Reach for the Sun, a game developed by Filament Games released early this year. It is the engaging result of game-based learning meets artistry, producing a game that is not only functional, but also extremely beautiful. Clouds cascade across the sky, the sun gently rises and sets, and butterflies flutter by. The simulation of plant growth builds a final masterpiece of color and life.

“It can be difficult to understand complex processes like plant growth and reproduction, but Reach for the Sun makes everything seem so easy and obvious,” said Abby Friesen, Lead Designer for the game. “No textbook can match the experience of actually becoming a plant.”

While vocabulary pops up on the screen throughout game play there is no spoken dialogue and no additional characters to manipulate. Reach for the Sun relies on its intuitive design and beauty to stimulate players and create learning opportunities for a diverse range of student learning levels. It uses the Universal Design for Learning to integrate with classroom curriculum and align with important State Science Standards, such as understand how photosynthesis gives plants energy for growth.

“People may want to add to their plant immediately, but they will first need to gather starch, water, and nutrients through their leaves and roots,” said Friesen. “It’s a constant decision-making process where you must decide what’s best for your plant in the long run. Everyone plays the game differently.”

Here at GameDesk we saw great value in Reach for the Sun in understanding plant reproduction and plant pollination. “Its ability to demonstrate systems of plant growth and the relationship between the root structures, leaf structures, flowering structures, and pollination is remarkable,” said Lucien Vattel, Executive Director at GameDesk. To compliment the game’s features we created curriculum around the game using a system we call Play-Research-Present.

Stage one of this learning system is Play. The game is played in a mode where there are no directions. Nothing is explained. Instead you begin to play through the system and the game prompts you with vocabulary words and visual cues. We divided students into four groups of nine and then created individual roles within these groups. Students rotate through the various roles during the Play learning session so everyone gets a taste of each experience.

There are four learning roles in all: the player, the wingman, the researcher, and the scribe. The player manipulates the computer mouse and controls the game play on screen. It is the player that first encounters the sunflower’s baby sprout awaiting water for its roots. Three tubes on the side display measurements for water, nutrients and starch, which fluctuate according to the player’s actions.  Immediately the player from each group explores the reactions between water and carbon dioxide from the air, and the plant’s stem begins to grow taller. The wingman works directly with the player, but is mostly focused on strategic advice like a backseat driver. This first phase is all about allowing students to explore the game components and test different reactions and methods to make their sunflower grow.

Stage two of this learning system is Research. Students quickly realize after initial exploration that they need to investigate and gather information to make more informed decisions.  Designated researchers look up every concept, process, vocabulary word, or procedure that the team doesn’t understand in the game. PlayMaker students perform research with classroom iPads, and other research tools could include computers, science textbooks, or encyclopedias.  Scribes then record all research findings and document the group’s progress, which will then be presented in the final presentation rounds. One student writes, “The scientific way to say sunflower is inflorescence. Cool, right?” These discoveries are captured and then shared with the rest of the team.

Another students writes, “The plant starts to grow up and gain more roots. We put vertical stems on top.  Now we’re getting leaves.  I think we’re doing well!  Blight is a disease and we got it. We died . . .” As plants died students would restart the game, using their prior mistakes as learning opportunities to do better the next round. The goal of the game is to grow the most complex plant, as well as move through the level and create the most flowering and pollination that students possibly can. Being able to do this demonstrates mastery of the process.

Students prove their knowledge when they Present in the third stage of the learning system. They gather in the center of the room around a large floor projection of the game, and each team must then play through the system in front of their peers. This Present piece is an evolution of our exhibition model that we use with sandboxes. The team that is able to grow the most complex plants and articulate the most acquired knowledge is the winner.

Our ultimate goal with this Play-Research-Present process is to have kids be very focused and research-oriented in a playful way. The peer-to-peer learning builds collaboration and problem solving skills, and the game play allows students to practice important scientific concepts in a risk free environment.  Reach for the Sun game play can be extended with a variety of plant species and is a beautiful way to learn about a plant’s lifecycle. PlayMaker kids sped off that Friday afternoon with leaf primordia and floral buds in their heads – a perfect way to kick-off Spring Break.  Cool, right?

For more on Reach for the Sun check out this behind the scenes video Here

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