The 2nd Month of #scienceFTW: Bones, Stars, Scat, & Biodiversity

When I last posted about our first month of #scienceFTW, our new science card game program led by Julia Zichello (Manager of AMNH’s Sackler Educational Laboratory), Nick Fortugno (Co-Founder/CCO of Playmatics), with support from J. Shepard Ramsay (NYU intern extraordinaire), we had only met for two sessions. I promised to post monthly updates but November was PACKED, so I will try to keep this as short and to the point as possible.

Session three was designed to teach a game that was strong in both science content and game design. This came as a relief to the teen participants, who were seeking a challenge. Carl Mehling visited us, from the Paleontology department, and played Bone Wars with us while he critiqued the game’s depiction of the early days of paleontology. Meanwhile game designer Nick Fortugno, the co-developer of the program, asked the teens questions from a game design perspective. We tried to highlight that the game taught two things – science knowledge AND science processes (comparative bone anatomy) – and through that introduce the idea of core mechanics.

Bone Wars with Carl in #scienceFTW

Session four took us from paleontology to outer space, bringing in two astrophysics, Ashley Pagnotta and Kelle Cruz, to play and critique with us the (unfortunately named game) Astronauts. In the game you send your intrepid space explorers across the solar system and back. This was an example of a game with strong game play but weaker science – or, rather, mixed science. After playing the game together we all critiqued the game design decisions, identified the relationship between the accurate and fictitious science content and the game play, and explored how the gameplay could remain fun while improving the science content.

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Session five took us out into the halls with Cristina Trowbridge who, inspired by our plans to play and critique Dung Deck (a Top Trump-style game about animal poop), introduced the teens to the AMNH’s Big Cat Scat project (which is tracking tigers, lions, jaguars, and snow leopards through DNA in scat gathered in the field.). When they weren’t learning about the project or playing the game, the youth could be found this session making sketches of the wild cats in the Hall of North American Mammals.

#scienceFTW - Dung Deck/ Cat Scat etching in the hallsSession 6 began our shift from traditional card games to collectible card games (the kind first popularized, and still played, through Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon). CCGs are the core mechanic we will be using throughout the rest of the program. This is one of the few session to focuses exclusively on a non-science commercial game, as we want the youth to get experience with the best of the breed: Ascension, which was one of the first to modify CCGs into a new type of game, a deck-building game.

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Session 7 was a sister session to the previous, rounding out our introduction of CCGs and deck-building games. Selen Turkay came down from Cambridge, where she is currently at the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching studying games and virtual worlds as collaborative learning environments. She shared her research on CCGs and talked about what it is like to get to professionally study games. This was also a joint session, held with the Conservation Biology program. After Selen concluded, the ConBio youth returned to their own program and #scienceFTW shifted attention to Specimania, the Field Museum’s mobile game based in a CCG mechanic. The youth compared Ascension (great game play, no science content) with Specimania (rich content, flawed game play).

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Session 8, our last for the month, ended our three-part series introducing CCGs. The ConBio youth rejoined us. They taught us about Conservation Biology. #scienceFTW youth taught them about game design. And together they played and critiqued a CCG about biodiversity, Phylo, specifically the version produced by the Beaty Museum in Canada. After playing the game the youth designed new cards and mechanics to improve both game play and the game’s ability to teach science content.

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Phylo is the game we will be working with over the rest of the program, first to “reskin” it with content related to our upcoming pterosaurs exhibit and then, through utilizing its card development program, to prototype a new game about scientists advancing scientific knowledge working in a museum context. And, in fact, they are an official partner, providing us funds that will be used to bring new content into the Phylo world (which currently offers hundreds of cards to choose from) as well as take the cards to brave new places they have yet to go.

But I get ahead of myself. That’s December. Looking back at these first 8 sessions we can see that our initial program design seems promising – to use card games to introduce youth to new areas of science, have them learn more about the content through playing with real scientists, and critique those games to understand how game design decisions can support (or undermine) educational objectives. As we move into the December sessions (beginning with Session 9: Pterosaurs Attack!) I think they are well prepared to work both as a team and with us to start designing their own science-based card games.

(more photos from this month’s sessions can be viewed here)

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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