Turning a Class on Building Space Helmets into a Game

For my second summer camp I decided to do something different from all previous classes I have ever taught. I decided to introduce the principle of “Gamification” to my course. What is “gamification?” In general, it takes elements of gaming to help improve aspects of real world activities. This can range from implementing a rank or achievement system to creating an actual game that simulate complex social situations for players to experience. In my case, I wanted to use gamification to help improvement student engagement during class and hopefully help them retain some of the lessons I am trying convey.

The idea of gamification is not new but it is something I have always wanted to try for a couple of reasons. First, I am a gamer. I started early with the Atari 2600 and was one of the luck few in Taiwan to get the early releases of the game console. As I got older I transitioned to the Nintendo and Sega which was a big part of my childhood. Second, I am a constant experimenter and, perhaps true to my engineering background, I am always looking for a more efficient ways to accomplish a task. In this case I wanted to find a way to improve student engagement during class. Lastly, I felt a bit overwhelmed with the prospect of teaching a technical course to eighteen 5th, 6th and 7th graders. To compound my anxiety, this is the first time I have to teach such a large class by myself. As I was creating the lesson plan, I was more worried about how to keep the classes moving and keep the students from dozing off then the content of the course. After some research, “Gamification” seemed to offer a lot tools I believed could help achieve my goals and keep the disruptions to a minimum.

Summer Camp at InGenius

For my second summer camp I had the pleasure of partnering with the great folks at InGenius (San Diego, CA.) They gave me 2-hours a day for 5 days or 10 hours of total instructions. My students were ranged from 5th to 7th grades. This is the oldest group of kids I have ever taught and from my conversations with them, some already have some familiarity with programming whether it is with Scratch or Java. However no one had any experience with wiring but most have a basic concept of electricity. I want to note that when I say wiring, I mean wiring individual connections instead of using wire harnesses that basically completes the connections in one snap. These wire harnesses certainly make life easier but I generally shy away from wire harnesses because I believe it deprive the students of to learn to some fundamentals concepts of electronics plus from my experience, wiring individual connections is really not much harder.

Goals for My Gamification Efforts

I had two goals for the gamification of my week-long course:

  1. My main goal was to help my students retain some of what they learned. I realize that they are tackling fairly complex topics. From learning how to wire the hardware correctly to learning the Arduino programming environment, it was a lot to pack in for 10 hours of instructions. Heck it is a lot to pack in even if I was teaching adults! I did have a couple of key concepts that I wanted them to take away and from, my perspective, there is no better way to help them retain these lessons than repetition. But repeating the same lessons is boring, so my hope is to use gamification to disguise the repetition into something much more fun.
  2. My second goal was to have a tool that I can use to keep the kids on task and focused on learning. My experience with teaching smaller classes is that students can get distracted very easily, especially when I bring out the laptops for the Arduino portion of the course. They sometimes get on the internet to play Agario or start watching Youtube. I did not want to resort to “bribing” the kids with candy because, as many instructors have discovered, this can backfire especially when you have a class full of already restless kids hopped up on candy. Without resorting to rewards like candy or yelling a lot, I really needed “carrots” to help keep my classes moving. Since this is summer camp, I don’t have many “sticks” to use to maintain order. It is not like I can give detention to misbehaving kids! Through gamification of my course, I hope to create powerful “carrots” that will motivate the kids to focus.

How I Gamify My Lesson Plan

Since this is the first time I implemented this approach to one of my classes, I thought I will keep things simple. A lot of what I implemented were just changes to how things are labelled and it really is no more than tailoring how I communicated my course material to my intended audience which, in this case, were middle school kids. For instance instead calling practice exercises “Exercises,” I called them “Challenges.” For harder challenges, I labeled them “Super Challenges” or the dreaded “Epic Challenge.” One aspect of my lesson plan that helped my gamification goals was building the course around the BOXEEO Space Helmet project. This provided a focus and a narrative since all the lesson eventually circle back to the helmet.

  1. Lesson Plan Built Around the Space Helmet: This technology course is build around the BOXEEO Space Helmet project. The project provided focus for the course and it inherently adds a natural progression to the curriculum. Although not explicitly stated, the goal of the course was for the students to progressively upgrade the capability of the Space Helmets as the their technical skills progressively increased. Students start with learning how to use a hot glue gun then so they can build the Basic Helmet. Next, the students learn basic electronics to integrate the simple light up electronics to the Advance Space Helmet. Lastly, students learn basic Arduino programming ti add interactiveness to their Advance Space Helmet. Along the way all the Achievement, Badges, Rank, and Challenges fit very nicely into this progression. The challenge was to figure out where to break up the progression so I can use the achievements and challenges to reinforce things they learned.

  1. Achievements and Badges: As someone pointed out, the Boys Scout have been doing badges for a long time. In the lexicon of school age children, Achievements and Badges conjures up different images. They think about Achievements and Badges from video games like Minecraft. To implement this game element into my course, I had to figure out which achievements the students were allowed to receive and where to include them in the lesson plan. For this one week course I decided that the students are able to receive one achievement and 3 badges.
  • Hot Glue Gunner Achievement: Before I handed out the Space Helmet Kits, the students must demonstrate some level of proficiency with using the hot glue gun. Using scrap pieces of cardboard they must be able to apply a line and a series of dots of hot glue onto the cardboard WITHOUT excessive amount glue. The students were to take 5 to 10 minutes to practice until then demonstrate to me that they can achieve the right results. Once they have demonstrated to me their hot glue gun skills, they received this achievement and the Space Helmet Kit.
  • Badge 1 – Cadet: Students receive this badge once they completed the Base Space Helmet. They will also receive the electronics kit for the Advance Space Helmet build.
  • Badge 2 – Recruit: Students receive this rank once they completed the Advance Space Helmet with the RGB LED lights properly wired.
  • Badge 3 – Specialist: Students receive this rank once they integrate the Arduino micro controller into their helmets to control their LED’s with at least one sensor.

  1. Regular, Super and Epic Challenges: I planned the general format of my the Arduino portion of the course to be: 1) Introduce new concept, 2) Go through an example exercise then 3) Challenge Round. The Challenge Round is basically an exercise that students must complete on their own based the concept that was just introduced. This format is not a different that what a lot instructors use. I just changed how I labelled the exercise portions so that the student perceive them as more of a game. Additionally I introduced the “Super Challenge” and “Epic Challenge.” As you can imagine, these challenges were progressively harder. One day I will incorporate “Heroic” or “Legendary” challenges into my lesson plan. Based on my eight year old sons’ reaction, these challenges would be in his words, “Epic!”


Lesson: Make an LED blink on and off.

Challenge 1: Make the RGB LED blink on and off with different primary colors. (5 minutes) in sequence.

Challenge 2: Make the RGB LED blink on and off with only mixed colors, i.e. violet, yellow, teal and white. (5 minutes)

Super Challenge: Make the RGB LED blink on and off mix colors using only ONE pin for the output. (5 minutes)

Achievements, Badges and Challenges are Big Deals

For my this group of students, receiving Achievements and Badges were a big deal. They repeatedly asked me how they can receive the next badge or what badges and achievements they have already received. Whether this translated to better engagement, I am not 100% certain but I was able to get through my lesson plan with only a couple of interruptions. At minimum it did seem to motivate the students to pay attention more to the lessons. I am sure it helped that I periodically reminded them that they needed to learn these lessons in order to get the next badges. The most interesting thing is that I did not have to give them something tangible to indicate that they receive the achievement or badge. They were content just knowing that gained the achievement or badge.

The “Challenges” were also a hit, especially the “Super” and “Epic Challenges.” Kids seem to respond well to anything that is labelled “Epic.” Add a little theatrics when rolling out the Epic Challenges and the kids attacked these challenges with zeal. The best part is that when they completed one of the harder challenges, some of the kids got excited and would call out “Mr. How, look we got it!” This brought a smile on my face. Not only did they complete some fairly complex programming problems, but you can sense their pride in the fact that they completed a fairly hard task.

What I learned from incorporating achievements, badges and challenges to my lesson plan is that how you present information has a big impact on how your intended audience respond. This should not come as surprise to anyone since all of marketing, storytelling, and a lot of activities hinges on this fact! Kids, with access to a plethora of games on their phones and computers are well versed with gaming lexicon. Aligning my lessons to something that they are more familiar with helped me achieve my goals and conduct my class more smoothly. It is definitely something I will continue doing for my next classes.

Making Troubleshooting into a Lesson

With my last summer camp I rushed through the wiring portion of the course. This caused frustration with some of the students but as a testament to the students’ tech savviness, some got it with a little help. I resolved to improve this portion of the course this time around, especially since I have much more time to work with. For this portion of the lesson I explained the inner workings of a breadboard and how it is used. This was a big source of confusion in the last session. I also drew up a diagram of a “naked” breadboard without the plastic cover. It showed how all the pin holes were connected but there is “river” in the middle that divides the breadboard into two halves. This explanation seemed to help a lot. Next I had the kids wire and rewire the basic circuit several times. Nothing like repetition to really drive home basic concepts, but inevitably some of them got it wrong. As I gently gave them hints to help them fix their circuits, it struck me that I should make troubleshooting its own lesson or, at least, sprinkle it throughout the course. Its funny that this never occur to me as I was putting together the course. To me, troubleshooting is a soft skill for engineers. It is not something that is formally taught and honed by years of experience and exposure a variety of different situations. Much like other soft skills such as leadership skills or conflict resolution. You know a good engineer when he or she troubleshoots well and the veteran engineers are the ones that can diagnose a problem merely by your description. For the classroom environment it really challenges the students’ understanding of core concepts. However I must ensure that they do not get frustrated by this activity which may cause them to lose confident and tune out.

Rewarding Cooperation Needs to be Figured Out

One of the biggest issues with teaching Arduino programming is that it requires lots pf computers, especially with a large group. In an ideal world, I would have enough computers for each student in my class. However in the real world students need to share computers because the school only provided enough machines for groups of 2 or 3. Conflict is inevitable as there is always one kid that hogs the computer while the other kids look over his or her shoulders to provide their input and sometimes backseat drive. Perhaps the kid on the computer is typing too slow or making too many mistakes. When arguments erupt is very disruptive to the rest of the class. I actually had this happen to two out of the eight groups in my class. Even after breaking up the arguments and addressing the conflict the best I could, the students involved in the conflict tuned out despite my best efforts to cajole them back to participate. Luckily, most my groups did not have problems but I would love a way that I can reward good cooperation so I can prevent the issue from arising.

Future Efforts to Further Gamify My Class

Currently I am toying with the idea of adding a point system on top of the Achievements and Badges. One way I can do this is to award XP or experience points to students that successfully completed tasks or challenges. For instance if they completed a Challenge, they would receive 50XP and an Epic Challenge would be 100XP. The XP could be used to track their progress and would be visible to all their classmates. It is basically a virtual incentive system but, as anyone that took an economics or management class will tell you, incentives can have a lot of unintended consequences if not thought through carefully. To make this system work well, requires much more planning on my part but it could help reward behaviors that would be harder to define like rewarding kids on how well they work in groups. I am just unsure how much more I would gain by adding this system.

I really enjoyed my first experience with gamification and it demonstrated to me some great potential with using this approach. The general structure with the Space Helmet as the center help tie all the lessons together into a tight package. For one week the student were building helmets that they enjoyed with increasingly sophisticated capabilities that relied on how well they mastery of the concepts presented during class. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the students received the idea of Achievements, Badges and Challenges. Going into this, I knew I would get some sort of reaction but worried that they would ignore it. From my observations adding Achievement, Badges and Challenges does seem to provide motivation for my students to pay attention and learn. I’ve barely scratch the surface with using gamification in education. With numerous resources available online, I look forward to incorporating more elements of games into my classes.