Play to Learn: NLM Interns Develop Animations, Games to Teach Science

“Play,” Albert Einstein said, “is the highest form of research.” Implied in that observation is that often, with play, comes learning.

That’s an idea that high school teachers Brock Eastman and Wendy Sparks have fully embraced. Both Eastman and Sparks interned for the second summer in a row with the National Library of Medicine Specialized Information Services Division (SIS) to create animations and video games that meld play and education to teach science.

Sparks, a science teacher at Montgomery High School in nearby Rockville, MD, sees her work with SIS as part of her larger role as educator. “I am constantly seeking tools to enhance student learning,” she says.

Animations on Plastics and the Environment

While their students enjoyed summer vacation, Eastman and Sparks, like so many committed educators, spent their time away from the classroom still thinking about teaching. Their homework: how best to get across the science of plastics to middle schoolers.

The four animated modules they and their team constructed introduce us to the energetic and eccentric character Polly Mer while also exploring what plastics are and their impact on the environment. The animations’ short lengths give teachers flexibility in how to use them, and the striking visuals and humorous plot elements keep the students engaged and make learning a natural and easy by-product.

A variety of cartoon characters, including a dragon and other fantastical creatures, stand together.

Animations help teach the science of plastics.

Eastman, a teacher at Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School, Sparks, and the animation team let loose their imaginations to find creative and captivating ways to inspire learning.

Sparks’ handiwork, an animation called “Farmtastic Plastics,” spins off the gaming theme from Farmville to teach students how monomers are bonded into polymers to make different types of plastics.

The sci-fi-inspired planet “Phthalámon,” one of Eastman’s creations, brings us creatures that can be trained to help students learn about the risks and uses of phthalates, the chemicals used to give plastics flexibility.

The “World of Plasticraft,” developed by Eastman, along with Brianna Queen, a junior at the University of Maryland, transports two sisters into the world of one of their favorite video games. There, they learn about the different plastic numbers and the science behind BPA (bisphenol A)—a chemical used to produce plastic water bottles, coat food cans, and manufacture compact discs, among other things.

In “Super Malleable Bros.” Polly must teach Mario and Luigi about plastic so they can defeat BPA Bowser, who is harming the environment with the production of his plastic castle. “Throughout their adventure, Mario and Luigi learn about the harmful chemicals that are released into the environment during the production and disposal of plastic,” explains the story’s young producer, Solomon Sapiro, a junior at Thomas Wootton High School.

The Gamification of Science

Not to be outdone, another team of SIS interns turned their energies toward gaming, using the vibrant colors, dynamic effects, and level-by-level repetition to quickly grab students’ attention and effortlessly reinforce science concepts.

Opening screen of the game Bohr Thru showing an alien creature under the titleUnder the technical lead of SIS computer scientist Ying Sun, Sparks and the SIS K-12 team partnered with Xin Wu, a graduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute majoring in Interactive Media and Game Development, to craft Bohr Thru, a chemistry-themed video game to teach the Bohr model of the atom. The model describes how protons and neutrons form an atom’s nucleus, surrounded by electrons in orbit at different energy levels. “By playing this game, players can enhance their knowledge of the names and atomic structures of the elements in the periodic table,” affirms Wu.

On the biology side, DNA base pairs provided the inspiration for Base Chase, a single-player experience in the style of the popular and addictive Doodle Jump. By tilting the phone or tablet, the player controls the character and collects the DNA bases by matching them with their pairs. Its developer, Yuantong Lu, a graduate student in the Department of Computer Engineering at Boston University, explains, “Once enough bases are paired, a cartoon animal is generated as reward for the accurate matches. The score is based on how many bases the player correctly matches.”

“I am so proud of using my computer programming skills and game design knowledge to build such a great educational game,” Wu says, in reference to Bohr Thru.

“Important to me is having experience as an iOS developer,” adds Lu.

Both games were developed using Apple’s Swift programming language and Sprite Kit game engine for the iOS.

The final game coming soon to the SIS toy chest tackles greenhouse gases and efficient energies. Run4Green introduces the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions and shines a light on their negative impacts on the global environment and human health. The work of programmer Jon Xia, a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University, Run4Green also showcases clean energy sources and green technologies by allowing players to reduce their own carbon footprint through purchasing green products.

Join the Fun

After a full summer’s work, the set of animations on plastics and the science-based games are nearly complete. Once the finishing touches have been applied, the plastics animations will be available on the NLM Environmental Health Student Portal, joining earlier animations on topics such as mold, the ozone, pollution, pesticides, and other chemicals. The games will make their way to the Apple Store. Bohr Thru, in fact, is already there.

Those interested in building games and animations instead of just playing them should contact Dr. Alla Keselman in the SIS Office of the Director. If your interests lie elsewhere, explore other internship options at NLM. There’s nothing more educational—or fun—than a semester or a summer at the National Library of Medicine.

By Mary Ann Leonard, NLM in Focus writer

Related Information
Base Chase
Bohr Thru