Science has never been so cool
It’s 4pm outside PS21, and the crowds of students hanging out in the playground is starting to dwindle. Presumably headed home. The handful of stragglers show no indication of the time and remain ardently engaged in their activities. A handful of boys are playing basketball. A few are sitting towards the back corner of the court just talking and joking. A few girls are jumping rope near the entrance where I’m standing. And, oddly, there’s a big group of boys and girls alike huddled over the stone chess board abutting the fence near the street. I can’t make out what they’re all staring at, but whatever it is they are entirely engaged. At one point, a basketball flies over their heads, nearly missing their hunched over skulls. Not one of them flinched. What are they all huddle over? What’s so engaging?
I walk over to see what the fuss is about. Leaning in I see they’re huddled over a solitary laptop. One student is sitting at the bench while on the computer while the others are shouting in her ear to “put some more sodium into the water”. Another suggests “adding in some sunlight to make the scene prettier”. A few seconds later, I hear a few students shouting “Oh no! The sunlight is evaporating all the water, quick, add some shade!”.
As it turns out, these students were huddled over a newly released game. The game, conceived and built by Jamie Charry, aims to increase engagement with science through a open-world game format. Those student in the playground that day, whether they realized it not, were learning fundamental aspects about the nature of our world. Put the right two chemicals together and you get an explosion. Add heat and water evaporates. Nothing groundbreaking, exactly. But the enthusiasm the students showed for building their world and experimenting inside it was quite astounding.
I asked Mr. Charry what the game was all about. “I think there’s a natural beauty to the world, in how it works, in it’s underlying structure and function. I get a great deal of joy from unwrapping the layers that obscure the inner workings of things. I want to peel back the hood of a car and see how the engine works. I want to look towards the interior of the sun to understand how it could possibly get so hot. I think there’s a tendency for people to shy away from science, and scientific ways of thinking, but in our ever increasingly technological world, there’s immense value in thinking like a scientist might. For example, understanding that heating causes evaporation may confuse people when they hear about rising sea levels. I thought more heat means less water? The idea of this tool is let students figure out the answer to that question themselves. Build a world, add water, add glaciers, then add heat. Then see what happens.”
Mr. Charry hesitates to call it a game, asserting that it instead can act as a digital science lab. A tool for underserved students or simply curious people. However he conceded that it might appear as a kids toy upon first examination. He continued:
“Toys are a great tool to learn. Games can be as well. I never understood why we relegate toys and games to the realm of children. These days adults play all sorts of games on their phones. I suppose it’s that adults have more immediate concerns, like paying our bills, than learning about how a car engine works. So it’s naturally tougher to engage adults in this kind of thinking. I guess the trick is to get them while they’re young, then hope they carry that through their adult lives.”