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STEM Curriculum Turned Into An Addictive Game

With Simple Machines, six interactive worlds illustrate the foundational principles of physics.

Levers, pulleys, and wheels–they’re tools that outline some of the most foundational principles in physics. But foundational principles are boring. What’s fun is using a lever to catapult a boulder at a castle, breaking down the bricks one by one to discover a dragon sleeping inside.

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That is the premise of Simple Machines, the latest iOS app by the educational game studio Tinybop. In the past, Tinybop has made interactive books on the human body and plant life. They’ve created a fun simulator for kids to build their own robots. But with Simple Machines, they’re taking aim at a very particular part of student curriculum: The first stages of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), in which kids commonly learn about six “simple machines”–the lever, pulley, wheel, wedge, inclined plane, and screw.

“We looked closely at the STEM standards for elementary school and found that they were actually pretty thin,” explains Tinybop founder Raul Gutierrez. “They’re mainly about just recognizing the various machines.”

Instead, Tinybop developed six interactive worlds–like a catapult attacking a castle to explore levers, a pinball machine to demonstrate planes, and an elevator fish tank to illustrate how screws can exert force. They’re physics simulators, disguised with the satisfying tactile elements Tinybop is known for. Drop a weight onto a wedge to crack open a giant ball of ice–yes, that sounds weird and complicated, but it feels fantastic, the way you lift the weight with your finger and hear the clank of metal on ice as it comes crashing down. Each moment is articulated through graphics, animation, and sound to create an addictive sense of “I want to do it again.” With no point system, health bar, or “game over” screen, you can loop through these simulations again and again.

“The machines in the app are not designed to be beaten in the traditional sense,” writes the project lead Colleen Hampton over email. “We don’t include gamification because we’re purposely building open-ended games that we want kids and teachers to be able to return to. Our philosophy is not to rush kids toward an end result…”

Kids can learn on their own terms by using an optional slider that transforms each level from a cartoony wonderland into a schematically annotated visualization of the physics at play. Furthermore, Tinybop worked with educators they have on staff, along with a consultant, to pen an accompanying mini textbook, with further explanation of the physical principles at play, along with questions that a teacher or parent can ask the child while they play. I found it a definite step or two more readable than what a Wikipedia page would have on the topic. If nothing else, it offered a CliffsNotes version of what’s going on, from a scientific standpoint, in the game, so one could casually point out the physics to a child.

Simple Machines is available in the App Store today for $3.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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