Can You Bake Research Into an Educational Game—and Make It Fun?

Can You Bake Research Into an Educational Game—and Make It Fun?

At BrainQuake, Inc., there is no plush office, marketing budget or incessant urge to chase venture capital. Instead, the small team of 7 focuses primarily on incorporating decades of research on math education into its family of games.

As co-founder and president, Dr. Keith Devlin notes the company is banking on the assumption that the market will eventually come to rely on the kind of independent university research BrainQuake uses. “When it does,” he says, “we want to be at the vanguard.” Today, many efficacy studies on edtech products are often commissioned by the developers themselves—or do not exist at all.

The fact that each of BrainQuake’s co-founders come from esteemed education backgrounds is helpful to those efforts. Devlin is a Stanford mathematician who specializes in math learning, and the company’s co-founder Randy Weiner has spent the past twenty years in education as a teacher, administrator and educational technology entrepreneur. A significant amount of the research that informs product development comes from Devlin, who believes BrainQuake’s “strong connection to a leading university makes it very easy to be up-to-date with the latest research.”

Their approach has won some admirers. In 2015, a Stanford study found that math scores for students using the app improved by an average of about 16 percent. The following year, nonprofit Digital Promise awarded BrainQuake first place in the Learning Sciences category for their commitment to research-based product development. BrainQuake also received a nod of recognition from the U.S. Department of Education in the form of an SBIR grant, which supports companies that demonstrate a commitment to incorporating research.

The grant will support continued development of Wuzzit Trouble. The app, aimed for K-8 learners, consist of a series of games in which the player works to free cute, colorful creatures known as “Wuzzits”. Users go through the game by tapping and turning a series of small gears to free the creatures—a process that requires them to exercise their math muscles whether they know it or not.

To maximize efficiency and effectiveness, the company had to determine which challenges were most worth solving. Rather than trying to cover a lot of content, the team focused on specific foundational skills such as the development of number sense. One obstacle that many students face is “the symbol barrier,” or the representation of mathematical operations and processes using symbols (for instance, X for multiplication.) Rather than using traditional symbols, Wuzzit Trouble relies on game mechanics to introduce players to mathematical operations. Devlin’s research suggests that changing how students interact with mathematical concepts is a crucial component and that video games like Wuzzit Trouble hold particular promise.

Creating an effective, engaging math game is no easy feat—especially when there are so many in the market. Not only does it require a diverse team of developers, researchers and educators, but also a common vocabulary and shared understanding of the purpose of a product. For BrainQuake, this meant focusing on a specific set of mathematical concepts and learning goals the team wanted to address.

“Part of the reason we’ve been lucky to have success is we’ve been having these conversations together for a long time...it requires a lot of time to sort out vocabulary that allows the team to talk to each other,” says Weiner.

So what does the future hold for BrainQuake?

In addition to providing performance data to users for the first time, the company is now creating digital manipulatives for Wuzzit Trouble that will show math symbols in a manner that is consistent with what is presented in elementary-level math classes. It’s important, says Weiner, that children can understand how to work with symbols once they understand the underlying mathematical concepts. Other developments, he adds, include building an app that tackles algebraic reasoning and thinking skills.

Though an emphasis on clear learning goals, research, and the creation of a common vocabulary between educators and programmers, BrainQuake offers a product development model that other edtech companies may want to consider.

Stefan Amrine is a writer, editor and former educator in Detroit

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