Backyard Engineers by Filament Learning brings all the joys of a perfect summer day. Created for both the iPad and the Android market, the app serves as an introduction to physics, problem solving, and adapting strategies as the data rolls, which are all good skills for little engineers and practical life skills. The storyline is to create the ultimate catapult for launching water balloons and be the master engineer of your neighborhood by completing ever demanding missions to douse your friends. By taking something so simple, like a good ol’ water balloon fight and turning it into a lesson on design, predictability, and the ability to cognitively shift gears based on performance, Filament Learning has insured that kids will have a blast in planning out their battles and learning too. The (EDU) game is designed for classroom use, and requires registering on the Filament site. Teachers will then have access to a teacher dashboard on the website so they can register and track student progress and a teacher’s guide that includes a weekly curriculum, activities, and labs. Here the dynamics of building a catapult are discussed, class discussion points, and sample rubrics and tests for comprehension and application of material. Here is a quote from Filament Learning about the game itself and the intended audience:
“This game is designed to be used in inclusive science classrooms that have a
diverse range of students (e.g., average and above average students, students
with high incidence disabilities, English language learners, and students who
struggle with reading). It is designed using the Universal Design for Learning
framework and is strategically aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards.”
There clearly was a lot of thought and work that went into this app and the accompanied teaching materials. The materials alone are well worth the price of the app, and are arranged in five lessons. By using the suggested format, the iPad introduces complex concepts in a fun and simple way, and the educational value of the app is extended into practical life labs and activities. And this translates to kids understanding the material enough to apply it in real life situations.
On opening, you are greeted by the host who helps you along in the game. And yes, the engineering host is a woman! What a wonderful role model, for all kids to see and imitate. Starting with a tutorial level, kids learn the basic dynamics of the game and about the components of building a catapult. Stars are awarded for the successful completion of a mission. In the subsequent 3 sections, the demands to integrate the material and strategize moves are scaffolded as you progress. There are no “right solutions” and here is the perfect opportunity for kids to share what they did and why. The tasks help kids learn to prioritize and they need to consider accuracy, damage (in terms of soaking your opponent with water), range, and the mobility of the catapult for the best launching spot. Students are able to “tweak” their catapults based on the demands of each level. Obstacles to overcome include opponents who can dry themselves off, ones that use an umbrella – which alters your aim, and heaven forbid the dousing of a neighborhood doggie. It’s curtains if a pup gets wet. Some of the levels within a section are pretty easy, while others really take time to plan out. This presents just the right challenge for kids whose executive functioning skills are still developing. They need the feel of success to help reinforce what works so that they can adapt and make changes accordingly to succeed with future challenges. Through the use of a gaming platform, kids can fail a mission, and thereby learn to try again in a safe nonjudgmental way. Like real Scientists, learning through error is a powerful way to find out what doesn’t work. By placing kids in groups or pairs, they will learn to share ideas and support each other. In the upper levels, extra stars can be earned by adding challenges to the level; a nice added feature for kids that are more proficient. Each level also allows for a pause to play, giving kids time to think and not act out impulsively. Gameplay is consistent and moves a child forward, by building on previous experience.
The students I have had play the game thoroughly enjoyed it, and you cannot get a better recommendation than that! (P.S. it is fun for adults too.)
About the Author
Jo Booth has been an Occupational Therapist for over 30 years, and currently works in Pediatrics with early intervention. She sees kids newly diagnosed on the spectrum as well as medically fragile kids. She loves to move, explore and play everyday; so that “her kids” grow up to be healthy independent learners.