C&B Notes

New School Algebra

Ubiquitous touch interfaces, wide-spread broadband access, and easy-to-buy and download apps are a potent combination for creating and promoting new and interesting ways to learn.  This trend is opening up challenging material to varied learning styles.  A compelling example is DragonBox, a new algebra-focused app.

You have an armadillo, a black-and-white trout, and a rainbow trout.  Can the animals fit inside the box?  No, this isn’t an intolerable ­riddle.  For Zoran Popović, it’s how you teach math to kids.  A computer scientist at the University of Washington, Popović first became known for his popular online game, Foldit, which challenges players to create intricate protein patterns by bending and rearranging amino acids — the constituent units of proteins — into new shapes.  Players win by building better molecules.  To Popović’s surprise, non-­scientist gamers developed more-­complex proteins than biochemists did, and these new proteins may lead to the discovery of new drugs or organic materials.

Now Popović wants to put the power of games to an even better use.  Earlier this year he adapted DragonBox, a Norwegian game app that introduces algebraic concepts with ­animal-faced cards, then builds up to numbers and computational signs.  Kids are given a mix of cards and a box.  They follow simple rules to get rid of all the unnecessary cards.  (Color cards cancel black-and-white ones, like positive and negative numbers.)  Eventually the player is left with a box on one side of the screen and an irreducible number of cards on the other — the equivalent of solving for x.  As harder concepts are introduced, students who need more time on a level get additional problems; those who understand it move on.  In an experiment with DragonBox Adaptive in Washington state, an average of 93 percent of K–12 students successfully mastered concepts after only 90 minutes of gameplay, and they didn’t want to stop.