Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Teacher's Bits: RoboRally for teaching transformations

I've been thinking for a year or so that RoboRally ought to be an excellent tool for teaching the mathematics of transformations. I've already drawn a connection in class between the motion of computer animation (in games and movies) and the geometric transformations we've been learning, and many of my grade 9s get that link quite clear in their minds. But for other students, computer animation is a form of change they're not too used to, or haven't looked at closely enough.

RoboRally's step by step motion gives a good look at similar transformations, and at a slower, more deliberate pace. Players need to think through each move, one at a time. The direction a piece is facing is also relevant (which makes rotations important), which isn't so in many other boardgames. In chess, for example, non-pawn pieces seldom care what direction their previous move came from, they can just go off in whatever new direction they like, instantly changing facing. And pawns, at the other extreme, are too directionally limited, with no chance to rotate at all. But the robots in RoboRally must be intentionally rotated, if they want to change direction. There's also the hope that exploring transformations will help to solidify students' grasp of Cartesian planes in general.

And better still, RoboRally is fun. The time pressure, the competition, the risk of blowing up or crashing off the edge, the lasers (pew pew pew), all make the simple act of moving a lump of plastic from A to B more exciting and compelling.

To make it most useful for my grade 9 maths class, I modified the rules and made it a team exercise. I stripped out any optional extra rules, to keep it as simple as possible, and I also replaced all of the cards and tokens with pen & paper, to reduce the chances of my game components getting damaged or lost. But the biggest rule change was replacing the random draw of order cards, with a free choice of translations and rotations, so long as they are accurately written in the correct format, as used in normal exercises.

This retains the two major sources of conflict in the game: Unpredictable, unexpected clashes between different robots' preset plans, and accidental errors in one's own planning.

The first draft version of the rules summary and worksheet. (Click to embiggen)
I found time today for one test game, and while some of the kids were initially uncertain about a lot of it, one or two practice rounds cleared that up, to the point that they were almost all really into it by the end. The winning team were some of the kids who started the game complaining the loudest that they didn't get it. In the final round, they were laser-focused and knew exactly what they were doing. Some of the others, who were very confident early on, learned a series of lessons about how easy it is to accidentally write down the wrong sign when there's time pressure, and they rolled confidently off the edge of the map into the oblivion beyond.

I've seen plenty written about the gamification of learning, and I think a lot of it isn't really suited to older students (who are nominally my main focus), so I haven't explored that much. But as I seem to have a long future of teaching juniors ahead of me, I'm starting to think that I'll have to give gamification some more thought.