Crawling with enthusiasm

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Ian Carter wasn't a fan of computer games in the classroom until he found a fascinating series of simulations.

Most of the computer games played at home work on the following principles: if it moves, kill it; if it doesn't move, nuke it; if you can't win, cheat. So most games are out of the question for curriculum use at school.

My resolve was weakened when I tried out a game called SimAnt on a biology class (the publisher, Maxis, likes to call it a software toy). Only half the snails survived their last practical, so in the absence of SimWorm a computer-simulated ant colony seemed the next best thing. The objective was to encourage the class to find out about some of the characteristics of ants such as their methods of feeding, reproduction and methods of communication.

Getting started was difficult as there are lots of icons, buttons, different views of the house and garden where the action takes place, and graphs for displaying the health of the ant colony more complicated than the average flight simulator.

The pupils, who are often exasperated by their inability to read and follow a set of paper instructions for practicals, managed to work out how to forage for food, dig tunnels and avoid being eaten by spiders and ant lions. Tips and strategies were exchanged freely as the children explored the game. Very little was being recorded on paper, yet when questioned they had learnt a great deal about ants and they were full of questions which needed to be answered. Many answers were provided by a mini-tutorial on real ants included in the simulation.

The experimental mode proved very popular the ants can be put through their paces by testing their learning with mazes or investigating the different chemicals ants use to mark their nests and scent trails. Killing the odd ants by dropping them in ant lion pits or offering them to marauding spiders produced satisfying crunching noises. Dare I say that the game provided a rich learning resource, more manageable and productive (and less destructive) than looking at real ants.

The teaching strategy is exactly the same as conducting a real experiment: good worksheets, structured questions and finite goals are necessary to extract the biology. I have no doubt that left to their own devices the children would have concentrated on the game and ignored the biology.

On the down side, the exercise took more time, required a class set of computers (two or three children per computer worked well) and their absorption in the game resulted in little written work. By comparison, a search through CD-Rom encyclopedias and biological databases for information on ants resulted in frustration and boredom.

Not content with controlling mere ants, SimEarth and SimLife allow you to control worlds, tinker with creating planets and atmospheres, direct evolution and engineer civilisations.

SimEarth is based on James Lovelock's Gaia theory in which animals, plants, climate and planet are all inter-related and self-regulating. Indeed, Lovelock was involved in the production of the game and his Daisyworld model is included as one of the scenarios an excellent demonstration of the Gaia concept for A-level geography and biology students.

The complexity of this game is staggering and keeping track of all the variables becomes overwhelming. It is packed with information and has working models of tectonic plates, the greenhouse effect, the hydrological cycle and the carbon cycle to name a few.

SimLife overlaps SimEarth but concentrates on the biology of genetics, evolution and ecology. The trouble with these Sims is that they are too big and complicated for the classroom and require a lot of time to explore. The curriculum is not quite ready for this holistic approach but inquisitive children will learn more about these complex topics from playing these games than from any book. Having said that, the manuals for all these Maxis games are exemplary and are packed with clear, informed background reading on the scientific principles involved in the games.

The latest biological blockbuster from Maxis is SimIsle which involves managing a rainforest ecosystem. Each island in the archipelago has different natural resources such as oil, gold and timber; both ecological and commercial pressures have to be balanced to preserve each island's environment.

The SimIsle software takes up a frightening amount of space on the CD-Rom compared with the other Sim titles, which come on a floppy disc. However the space is used profitably, to provide stunning graphics, an encyclopedia filled with facts about the islands as well as a set of agents to guide you through difficult moments with the local villagers or to advise on the ecology. Each agent has a particular area of expertise and choice of the right ones can make all the difference to a successful campaign. This increases involvement in the game and provides plenty of opportunities for social as well as environmental engineering.

Each of the 24 pre-designed scenarios has its own slant which makes the game more manageable. To add a little spice to your cosy tropical island, events such as shark attacks, air crashes, oil pollution and even nuclear meltdown keep you on your toes.

There are other Sim titles such as SimCity 2000, SimTower and, for younger children, SimTown. These games are popular but are not so applicable to the curriculum apart from training town planners!

The SimCity Urban Renewal Kit is a utility for designing your own buildings. There is the potential to reconstruct your own school and its surroundings and investigate the effects of a flood, riot or an air crash.

For a culturalhistorical approach, Civilisation (MicroProse), concerns itself with developing a small nomadic tribe (c 4000 BC) into a space-travelling society. Each development of your empire depends on learning skills and technologies before progress can be made: alphabets before writing and astronomy before space travel. I suppose it is a sign of the times that pupils look up the relevant information in Encarta rather than searching their history textbooks.

Undoubtedly children learn a great deal from these Sims, but how do you achieve the delicate balance between learning and obsession? They are great for the home, but require a structured approach in the classroom.

Maxis has anticipated the problem by producing some teacher packs with worksheets and learning materials, but these are yet to appear in the UK. A useful ploy is to keep games in a locked folder on the network and open it at random. Switching the location improves pupils' knowledge of the network and adds to the fun.

If you want to impress the head or parents, open the folder before the visit and they will be confronted by a seething mass of bodies gathered around each machine like SimAnts. While they are suitably impressed, you can suggest that a few more machines on next year's budget wouldn't go amiss.

* The Maxis Sim and Civilisation series can be obtained from most software suppliers. They are available for Macintosh, Dos and Windows.

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