Tutoring 8th Grade Science

When I retired in 2014, I decided to approach local science or history teachers to see if I could get collaboration on an app to help students learn. Early ‘cold’ emails to middle school teaching staff and coordinators did not get any replies, until I found a tutoring coordinator at a middle school. By this time I wanted to just found out what teachers wanted or thought could help. (Duh! What took me so long?)

In 2015, I was lucky to find a middle school science teacher who wanted someone to tutor students who were failing 8th grade science. Over the next 5 or 6 months I worked individually and sometimes with small groups of 4-8 students. 

For each session, the teacher gave me the material, and then I found that for many of the units I could create a simple app to help them remember the core concepts. The teacher also gave me tests from the previous year as background, and I put those in the app also as simple drill examples. Because of the reading and language difficulties of many students, every question was accompanied by an image similar to or identical to those used in class, I used a specific ‘dyslexic’ font, and there was an option (default) for having every question and every answer read to the students by the app with text-to-voice.

Although distribution of the app was a problem, I was able to use it with several students who had either tablets or smart phones, and I also loaned a tablet to the program for the year. Students who used the app at home improved more than those who didn’t, but they were also the most motivated.

One student worked with me on his ‘final project’ to build a unit into the app and then to compare a few students (randomly assigned) using the app vs reading the class handout before taking the unit test. Those who used the app did on average better, and two did outstandingly well, but the number of students was small (7) and the biggest factor was motivation, in my view. Not a scientific test, but a very good learning experience for the student.

That app was later released (with the student and teacher permission) as Science 8 (https://www.ideategames.org/mobile) and has typically 200-300 sessions of use every day since release in 2016.

[An aside: the teacher I was working with retired that year, and was replaced by a teacher who did not value tutoring and only wanted me to grade lab reports, so nothing further was done after a semester grading reports.]

Even though Science 8 is not a game, only has one small game-like part, it is still a success (in my expectations, with no marketing or social-media campaigns) and used regularly.  Though not a game, it is fun. The first module I created was ‘Will it float?’ to help with density that several of the students were struggling with. It was so much fun that some of the students played it many many times during that unit. That module is one of the most popular because it is simple, fun in a ‘what will happen?’ way, and does promote learning. 

I think another factor in the success of Science 8 is that it is very much aligned to curriculum needs. I don’t know if I will come back to this with games or not. I do not think it is possible for a small team (of 1 in my case) to compete in the content area with the materials already available as education resources.

This experience with Science 8, putting fun first, but putting it in the context of learning, is what brought me to the effort now in PhosphorLearn. The question remains, can I do this outside the context of specific curriculum needs?

To answer that question, I moved from game apps, which have expectations that are very narrow, to board games and card games because of the opportunity of engaging groups or teams. (And, I happened to build my own app for making game cards.) When tutoring, I saw up close the value of groups working together in sessions to learn and play. This is nothing new in education, of course, but I had been resisting because I was stuck in app mentality. (I tried a couple of collaborative game apps, but it ends up being too complicated below the virtual world genre, which is far too crowded and high end.) 

Getting to board games broke me out of that mindset. And having grandchildren forced me into more flexible games.

Next: the trip back to board games and card games.