(Ariel Marcy is a student member of the Paleontological Society and currently a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. She’s best described as an evolutionary biologist, as she works more with modern material than fossils, but also is a science communicator and educational game designer. Her best-known educational game is Go Extinct!, and her website is www.steamgalaxy.com.)
Tell us a bit about your background and interest in science and education. What inspired you to pursue your career?
Honestly, I tell three different “origin” stories of why I pursued science and then soon after science education. The first one is of me around five years old at an ornithology outreach event, happily picking apart an owl pellet to find semi-digested mouse bones. Now, I still study rodent bones! (Though less as a decomposing decoration for my nightstand and more for the fascinating story they tell about biodiversity in Australia.)
The second story is of me a little older, asking my dad what he does all day as a doctor, and receiving a game called ADAM. It was mostly a simulation but it allowed me to explore physiology at eye-level, “Magic School Bus” style. I loved it. I spent hours on it.
The third story is of my influential high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Ely and University research advisor, Prof. Hadly. Both transcended the role of instructor into mentor and role model. Both often did this by challenging me to go beyond what was comfortable into what I wasn’t sure I could do well. I think most of us reading this can point to people who have lit the fire for them as well.
All three of these stories contain elements of what inspire me to pursue science with science outreach through games. The owl-pellet lover in me that wants to communicate the fun and exploratory sides of science. The game lover that’s convinced that games do a particularly good job at communicating the fun of science while engaging players in a scientific way of thinking. Finally, mentors like Mr. Ely and Prof. Hadly who pushed me earlier gave me the courage later to expand beyond my researcher/educator comfort zone and fashion a game designer hat, too.
What’s it like creating educational games, and how did you develop the idea for Go Extinct?
It’s so fun! It’s also strikingly similar to conducting science. Science is both a method and the knowledge we produce with this method. For the latter, we are usually figuring out how facets of our world fit into the larger known systems (e.g. processes, cycles, phenomena, etc.). Games are systems (e.g. rules set in motion, emergent strategies, dynamics with other players, etc.) which happen to be fun.
Because of this similarity, games are an amazing medium to convey scientific understanding of nature’s systems. Making games both fun and educational, however, is similar to the scientific method. You come up with a hypothesis of how a set of rules might teach players how to read evolutionary trees, for example, and then test it with actual people. It’s also important that you control this experiment, give players as little information as possible, so you don’t skew their behavior. Then the “peer reviews” roll in. And let me tell you, when you’re working with kids, they are all as bluntly insightful as Reviewer 2.
The idea for Go Extinct! came out of two needs. First, I had forged into making digital learning games and needed a new business card. I stuck my information to the back of dinosaur-themed playing cards. People loved them, but I had to disappoint them when they asked if I had designed them. Clearly, I needed cards from a game I had made!
The second need came from TA’ing intro biology to 200+ university students with varied science backgrounds. It came as a surprise that reading the evolutionary tree was one of the most difficult skills to teach. I spent hours on section plans, office hours, and emails to students struggling with the concept. Finally, I realized that the linear formats of lectures, books, and emails wasn’t working.
Thinking about the second need further, I realized that the key insight for reading trees – that they are sets within sets – also made for a rich game system. Out of this was born a Go Fish-like game where players can ask for any “set” (i.e., clade) on the evolutionary tree. The asking strategy now incentivized players to look at their hand and identify common ancestors.
Here’s how it works: players become zoologists competing to collect color-coded clades of closely related animal cards using the evolutionary tree board. Each player starts with 6 cards and completes clades by asking another person for cards (e.g. “Shonda, do you have any…?”). Players can ask for a specific animal or for a group of animals sharing a common ancestor. The emergent low-risk strategy is also the major learning objective: identify and ask for deeper clades containing several animals in your hand. These moves minimize the information you give away about your cards and maximize the chance for useful cards.
For example, in photo below, the player might be tempted to ask for the Chicken, but it would be less risky to ask for any Terrible Lizard. Since they have other reptiles, it could be better to ask for any Toothy Grinner or any Holey Head. Suddenly, the player is critically assessing an evolutionary tree!
Tell our readers a bit about “gamification” and the use of Go Extinct! in the classroom. How does the new DIY version of Go Extinct! allow students to ask their own science questions? (You could expand on PBLs here, if you want!)
Gamification is using elements from games to incentivize certain behaviors in real life. It’s a big trend in business and it ranges from obvious systems like frequent flyer miles to more subtle influences like getting “likes” on social media. In education, it’s growing in popularity but you have to be careful that you’re not replacing the intrinsic motivation for a behavior with an extrinsic reward system that will end with the school year. Gamification done well pulls from the elements of games that appeal to our intrinsic motivators, like social interaction, mastery, exploration, and humor.
I think educators would agree that Go Extinct! hits at least a few of the intrinsic motivators above and that’s what makes it an engaging game (not that players get points for complete clades). The biggest compliment that I’ve received from teachers is that it engages their less academically-inclined students, who are often teaching the “science nerds” how to play. As an advocate for diversity in science and STEM, I think this is one of the goals we should aim for in science outreach: engaging more audiences. Games are just one medium by which to do this.
DIY Go Extinct! is a free online game design platform that extends the appeal of the original game by giving students more exploration, creative mastery over their game, and engagement with technology. Using the platform, students get to choose the phylogeny, the animals, and the photos therein. By exploring the phylogenies, they will recognize new relationships between species, the shear amount of biodiversity that exists, as well as recognize the many ways phylogenies can be structured. Finally, by completing their game they take on the role of science communicator when they share their custom games with family and friends.
Some teachers have successfully taken this a step further by asking students, often in project groups, to create Go Extinct! games around their favorite organisms. This project engages students with research on their chosen organisms, evolutionary trees from primary literature, and the creativity of giving their clades silly-yet-scientific nicknames.
What advice would you give to our readers looking to enter paleontology, or our current members seeking new ways to educate their students?
My biggest piece of advice to prospective paleo people is to get involved at a local university lab or museum by volunteering on a project. I entered paleontology by signing up for a research assistant experience where I helped out a grad student with her excavation. I was hooked! And perhaps most importantly, I was adopted into the supportive Hadly lab.
Relatedly, find a way to get to conferences like SVP [Society of Vertebrate Paleontology] or ICVM [International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology]. I met my current (and awesome) PhD advisor by giving a poster at SVP as an undergrad. Finally, invest in learning a skill that you’re passionate about and sets you apart. For me that’s been educational game design, and it’s really helped me stand out for grant applications as well as make a real difference. Don’t feel guilty for fostering this skill during your scientific workday.
Here’s my advice to members interested in incorporating games:
- Play the game beforehand to make sure it all makes sense, connects to your curriculum, and will take the amount of time you expect.
- Have all the rules on a Power Point so you can orient everyone all at once (hand out the game after so people are tempted to dive in).
- Do this in a small group setting like a seminar or section, not a lecture-sized crowd. A small number of simultaneous games are okay.
- Debrief the game immediately after as not all of the concepts will translate for everyone. I also recommend a mini-peer review: what isn’t scientifically accurate, or could be improved?
Of course, I’m sure folks reading this are well aware, but the more active the activity, the more students will remember. Games are just one type of active learning activity, but they tend to really deliver on engagement.
Related Games and Media
STEAM Galaxy Website (http://www.steamgalaxy.com/)
DIY Go Extinct! (http://www.steamgalaxy.com/design-your-own-game/)
Deeper Clade Infographic (http://www.steamgalaxy.com/supporting-educational-materials/)
National Center for Science Education Review (https://ncse.com/blog/2016/01/play-go-extinct-0016851)
National Science Teachers Association Review (http://www.nsta.org/recommends/ViewProduct.aspx?ProductID=22860)
Next Generation Science Standards Alignment (http://www.steamgalaxy.com/go-extinct-and-ngss/)