RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS: Game Design for 5th Grade G&T Students

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S. Bermeo-Science Lab Teacher
C. Brantner-5th Grade Teacher
D. Gerdes-5th Grade Teacher
H. Roman-Inventor/Retired Engineer

What is described herein took place at a grade 3-5 G&T grammar school—the Hillside grammar school in Montclair, NJ. It was meant to be a warm-up exercise to a much larger team-based design challenge to occur the following academic trimester. This game design activity and the upcoming design challenge are all part of an educational grant awarded to the school to bring STEM based learning into the classroom. The grant was administered by Montclair State University through its PRISM Center, with the funds made available through the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company.

The stated goal of the grant to Hillside grammar school was:

“Enhance students’ application of STEM skills in a real-life context…develop a unit that involves invention, sustainability, and STEM skills as well as provides for professional development for science teachers that facilitates collaboration as a professional learning community.”

In a larger team-based design challenge, students were to be challenged to design an alternate energy system [sustainability] that could be located in a developing country; so what they learned about team based design would be ramped up to a much larger and more complex inventive activity

Prior to this, science and math teachers in the school attended a day’s worth of in-service education discussing about invention, creativity, engineering, STEM and sustainability concepts.

The Setting

  • 5th grade student teams [typically 4-6 students per team] were challenged to create their own game designs.
  • No other directions were given-maximum freedom to create what they decided upon as a team.
  • 18 teams created games; played and demonstrated them.

Setting the Stage
Prior to the students demonstrating their games in a double period setting, they were asked how they enjoyed the team venue-what they liked, and did not like. The enthusiasm was quite palpable-all wanting describe what they had done. Here are some paraphrased positive comments about the team experience:

  • Really enjoyed the team atmosphere
  • Could see each one’s ideas in the game
  • Felt like they learned more about their classmates by doing this-becoming better friends
  • Enjoyed the socialization as much as designing the game
  • Wanted to do more of this type of project/challenge
  • Seeing their ideas come to life
  • Allowing themselves to be creative.

On the negative side, one universal item emerged. They did not like when classmates were unwilling to compromise or give in to the ideas of others. We did discuss how this conflict could dampen creativity and how this is a natural part of growing up and socialization. For the most part students understood this.

We talked about how many heads on a project are better than one; and this produced a very spirited discussion. All recognized the value of a team for generating creative and plentiful ideas. It was explained that a team can be 10-12 times more prolific in generating ideas than a single person. Students had no trouble accepting this.

We also talked about the concept of diversity, and how it works here. Team members bring different life experiences, subject readings, cultures and interests to a team-enriching its pool of resources. We talked about how engineers and STEM workers thrive in teams and how most companies rely upon teams to generate ideas and invent new products and services. Aiming for diversity on teams and employees in a company is an economic plus for companies.

Students were asked how they view “failure”. This can be a sensitive subject, especially in design settings where students may learn that a single, right answer is not possible. First, the answer may be the result of a series of iterative designs that eventually satisfies the entire team; and second…the answer depends on what questions are asked about the design by the team members—where they feel the game design should go. This double edged aspect of design may be both liberating and scary for team members-after all, their entire experience in school is generally associated with getting the right answer. All in all, this did not inhibit the students as their natural enthusiasm for doing something different and having the freedom to create as they decided among themselves won out…but it is something to keep in mind for classrooms where students may have trouble bootstrapping themselves or self-starting.

Playing and Demonstrating the Games
The 18 teams produced a variety of games, generally falling in the following categories:

  • Modifications of traditional board games like Monopoly© and Candyland©
  • Themed games-having to do with certain subjects like history, rock-gems and art; involving some intellectual aspects like questions and points totaled
  • Combinations of sports [like hockey and soccer, and skiing and hockey]
  • Dynamic games….where things moved and players had to score points.

As might be suspected, different student learning styles resulted in different types of games. Some of the games had detailed questions that needed to be answered in order to move along the game board or to score points. Some games involved more sports-minded thinking or even action. One such outstanding example was a game based on alien invaders that had to be destroyed. A tinker toy rotating disk device [hand operated] presented the alien spaceships that had to be destroyed by launching small candy mints at them. Hitting the ships scored points and eventually resulting in winning the game. What was highly original about this game design was the system approach the students used. They designed and built everything from the rotating disk to the candy launching apparatus-even designing the trophies for the people with the most alien kills!

Three teams did not build or display board their ideas; but had detailed diagrams and descriptions of their games. One of the teams created a ramp launching mechanism that could be used to shoot balls into a scoring matrix-not unlike one finds in the arcade game Skeeball©. Discussion with the team indicated they completely understood the mechanism they were designing, that would allow the end of the launching ramp to be adjusted by the players in order to aim their balls more accurately at high scoring targets. We discussed the math applications of the adjustable ramp end and how it resembled a triangle and the math involved in all this.

One team made a computer generated commercial featuring the team discussing the features of their game-a most unusual and surprising aspect of the game design challenge!

When questioned about writing up the rules of the game, most teams had a general distaste for doing this, but realized how important it was so people could learn the game rules. Perhaps it is the general dislike most students have for writing that is reflected here. It was emphasized that in the business world, everyone is expected to be able to write well, expressing their ideas and such for new products their company may want to offer. All communication both verbal and written is a key component to one’s success in the professional world. If one cannot “sell” their idea to a company’s leaders, then it would likely not be funded. Good communication skills are very important.

In one of the designed games, students were able to apply the concepts of probability. In another game, students were able to demonstrate the relationship between a large wheel rotating a small wheel [mechanical advantage, gearing up/down].

Tying in Thomas Edison
Because the school is very close to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park [TENHP] in West Orange, New Jersey, the students natural talk about him in class. Here is how we brought him into our discussions:

Edison was a tenacious inventor, never discouraged by failure— always learning from it and moving forward. In both his light bulb and storage battery developments, he conducted thousands of experiments before he was able to produce a workable and practical product. His famous utterance was most applicable here for the would-be inventors….”Fail your way to success.”

Several teams were quite active in trying to improve their games, taking notes during play to make it better. Edison was a big proponent of this, always striving to improve the salability of his inventions. Continuous improvement was a watchword of Thomas A. Edison Industries.

Although the students were not instructed to keep invention notebooks or journals of the development of their games, this is going to be required of them in the next design challenge. Edison was noted for keeping extensive laboratory notebooks, in fact, these totaled about 4,000 volumes. Throughout his lifetime, Edison generated over 5 million written documents, studied by historians, technologists and scholars.

Team-based design activities are a positive way to engage 5th graders, unleashing great amounts of creativity and team cohesiveness. The teams engaged in this activity all completed their assignments; and responded well when describing what had been done. The teams will be ready for the much greater design challenge that awaits them.

S. Dirgen-3rd Grade Teacher
P. Smith –Teacher
Dr. V. Walencik-Professor, Montclair State University


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