Why The Incredible Machine Worked in the Classroom

February 19th, 2015 by Deborah Fike

Spotkin has received a ton of positive feedback from the hundreds of teachers who use Contraption Maker.  With the original team behind The Incredible Machine working with us, we had few doubts that students and teachers would love Contraption Maker in the classroom.  However, just because we knew it would be successful in schools doesn’t mean we understood why it worked so well.

To answer that question, we did an academic research review on The Incredible Machine.  You can find many of those sources on our Academic Research page.  One study in particular, written by Alvaro H. Galvis and entitled “Critical Factors in the Design of Playful Learning Environments: Reflections on ‘The Return of the Incredible Machine: Contraptions'” offered some of the most poignant insight for our team.  He wanted to figure out why kids and parents became so engrossed with the game.  Why was The Incredible Machine educational, rather than just fun?


even more contraptions

Here are some of his conclusions as to why The Incredible Machine (TIM) worked so well in the classroom:

Kids completely controlled the TIM environment.  With a blank slate and a bunch of parts, a kid is in charge of his contraptions.  That’s a powerful learning experience, especially within the world of formalized education, where most learning takes place in abstract form.

TIM gave immediate concrete feedback.  One push of a button will let a kid know immediately if her idea performed as expected (or not).  The child is then free to continue fiddling with the system to produce better results.  No waiting is involved.

TIM didn’t just give you an answer.  Although versions of TIM had a hint-based system to solve puzzles, the game never gave anything away outright.  Kids were expected to work through to solve things on their own.  This provides kids a greater satisfaction when they figure puzzles out.  It also promotes thinking of possible alternative solutions.

Different kids could solve the same thing in different ways within TIM.  This powerful feature rewards a variety of problem solving and thinking styles.  Kids were neither rewarded nor punished for taking a certain approach to solving the puzzle.  When a kid found ways to solve things differently than his peers, it validated that his thinking style had merit and let him use his scientific creativity.

The playful parts within TIM encouraged tinkering.  An ordinary ball and ramp aren’t fun on their own, but when a ball can super bounce and interact with motors run by hamsters, then playfulness occurs.  The imaginative parts drew in kids to discover how each part functioned, and the cast of characters helped establish that fun world.

TIM supports both algorithmic and heuristic approaches to learning.  A kid could try to follow a series of steps to solve a puzzle (algorithmic) or could just be told how parts work and find a goal for herself (heuristic).  Both kinds of learning are important to teach problem solving in education.

As we continue to improve Contraption Maker, we keep these aspects of what made TIM great in mind.  Our end goal is to  create something fun that kids can tinker with and learn, even if they don’t realize that they’re learning.

-Deborah Fike


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