Fractions War: Reflections from a non-traditional academic project

By John Vito Binzak

Fractions War is an iOS math game app envisioned by Educational Psychology graduate students, Elizabeth Toomarian and me, John Vito Binzak. The game is based on the children’s card game War, where a deck of playing cards is split between two players, each player flips over one card time, the player whose card has the larger value gets both cards, and this repeats until one player wins all of the cards. While the intention of the game is not to teach players about number ordinality, players are nonetheless engaged in making rapid and repetitive magnitude comparisons. In Fractions War, players flip over two cards at a time and arrange them vertically to form a fraction, then decide whose fraction has the larger value. Developing this app was motivated by my empirical, educational, and experiential goals.

Studying how people understand fractions and develop this knowledge is a primary focus of Toomarian’s and my research in the UW Educational Neuroscience Lab. Fraction learning has been come an important topic of study for cognitive scientists because studies have shown that fraction knowledge is a significant predictor of later math success and unfortunately many people show great difficulty when learning and retaining this knowledge. Much of the numerical cognition research studying fractions learning has occurred in well controlled lab-based or school-based studies, but much less is known about how people understand fractions in informal learning contexts and learn through experiences such as games. By designing Fractions War with a built-in data collection system, the game is designed to be both a learning intervention and a research tool. Furthermore, by designing options to play with different cards that vary the extent to which visual cues (e.g. 10 diamonds) are present or absent, studying learning with Fractions War allows us testing specific hypotheses regarding whether these visual features are critical for learning.

From an educational standpoint, this game was developed to create a fun experience for students to get additional exposure to fractions in a low-stakes activity. This is in line with my great interest in making better educational media and developing research-based principals that help to achieve these goals. Making educational games is not a requirement of my graduate school coursework, nor is it a commonplace practice for cognitive scientists in my field, thus developing this app provided me with evaluable experience to see how my skills could be applied in ways less traditional to academia.

Building this game has also provided me with opportunities to network with Ed Tech companies outside of academia and better understand how educational media is developed. This experience also created an opportunity to interact with students at UW who study outside of my discipline. Developing the app required partnering with four students in the Computer Science 407 course (Foundations of Mobile Systems and Applications) who were assigned to build a new piece of technology. The interactions that came from organizing a team behind one vision, such as explaining research-based motivations to our developers with no cognitive science background, were critical for developing confidence in my potential to continue this work going forward. Lastly, this experience was a major motivating factor behind my decision to attend an entrepreneurship boot camp at UW and learn how it is possible to bring innovative ideas born from academia and development them into new ventures in the commercial marketplace.

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