Innovation Math Challenge Interviews

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Interview with WGBH Innovation Math Challenge Winner, Martin Schneider

Tell us about yourself — what are some of your hobbies?  

I am currently finishing up my junior year in high school. One of my favorite areas of study is computer science. I love to program, and one of my favorite hobbies is programming educational video games. I am also very involved in a variety of school teams and clubs. I am a long-standing member of my high school Robotics team where I build robots, compete in competitions and share my love of the field with the community. I am also in my high school marching band, compete on my school chess team and participate annually in science fairs and other STEM-related competitions.

Why did you decide to create a game to teach Geometry?

One of the things I like most about designing educational video games is the ability to engage learners in new ways. For me, it is incredibly rewarding to see a player get excited about playing one of my games. Even more rewarding is when I know the player is learning important skills (for example, a previously challenging math concept) and having fun doing so. For Knights of Pi, I decided to focus on Geometry concepts because I was hoping to develop new ways to teach topics that are often very hard for students to grasp. I knew I wanted to incorporate visual math lessons directly into the graphics I created for the game. I tried to develop a game that fully integrated the learning with the lesson. Hopefully players, teachers and parents feel that the game provides a good mix of play and learning.

What is your personal relationship with math?

Math has always been one of my favorite subjects in school. Currently I am studying Calculus BC and AP Statistics. I am also an active participant in a wide variety of math and science related programs through my high school. For example, I compete annually in Science Olympiads, a fun competition called the Amazing Math Race, chess matches and robotics competitions. Math is a critical part of so many aspects (if not all) of our lives. For me, the coolest part of math is its relevance in so many different contexts. I love the challenges presented by complex math questions, as well as the simple clarity (in retrospect, of course) of final solutions to previously challenging, but now resolved, math problems.

How did you get started?

For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed working with computers and making games. For me one of the coolest aspects of technology is the ability it provides for creation and discovery. I still remember the first time I was introduced to Microsoft PowerPoint. My second grade teacher hoped we would learn how to add text to slides, but I was more interested in investigating the more complex capabilities of the program. Believe it or not, some of my earliest games were in Powerpoint. Since then, I have relied upon books, online tutorials and trial and error to help me improve my skills.

Tell us about your game — what is your favorite part

Knights of Pi is a two dimensional platform game that introduces, teaches, and provides practice for geometry concepts through lessons and practice problems that are entirely integrated into the platform setting. The game setting is a kingdom filled with knights, dragons, castles, fireballs and more. My favorite part of the game is how the game characters illustrate both the problems and the concept explanations. Students are never removed from game play while learning. I am also a fan of the free running physics engine that I coded to bring my vision for the game to life.

What is the takeaway you want for your audience?

Well, if by audience you mean the students who will be playing the game, I hope the takeaway is that math is really fun! I also hope the game helps them begin to identify tested geometry concepts (such an angles) in the world around them (just as in the wings of the dragon in the game).

What was your brainstorming/creative process like?

I generally begin brainstorming by developing a vision for my game (both game play and educational purpose). I often work on plot, design and desired game mechanics simultaneously. I do not let concerns about “How” I will code the game to achieve those objectives hold me back. I love coding challenges and thrive on the task of figuring out how to debug a glitch or trouble-shoot an error.

What do you think would make more kids interested in math?

Fun learning tools that demonstrate relevance! If we can continue to provide math resources that are engaging, novel and relevant to the world kids live and play in, then I think that increased interest in math will follow naturally.

How will these types of resource be useful to students?

I think (hope!) Knights of Pi will be useful to students for two reasons: fun and learning. Each level introduces a new geometry concept and levels incorporate prior concepts. So, practice on all learned concepts continues. The game provides practice, repetition and incentives to keep playing. The game also provides feedback and instruction, so that users are given the tools needed to improve and advance in the game.

What is one thing you learned from your Innovation Math Challenge experience?

I learned a lot through my experience. One of the most valuable lessons was the importance of testing. I tested the game with my younger siblings. Their understanding and ability to solve the geometry problems improved as they continued to play. Their feedback also helped me make the game more fun and the game content clearer to the student. I also built in certain game tools as a result of their feedback. For example, I added an on-screen calculator when I realized that the core concepts taught in the game required basic arithmetic. For this game, I wanted users to focus on the geometry concepts, so I decided to provide an on-screen calculator to assist with the addition and subtraction needed to calculate angles (as an example). This provided users the ability to easily apply new concepts and move through the game more efficiently. So, I learned more about how to achieve an optimal balance between teaching, testing and game play.

What advice do you have for future challenge entrants?

First and foremost, take a chance. You have to submit your work in order to have the opportunity to share your games, videos, and interactives with others. I never thought I had a chance, but decided to do my best and give it a try. Now I am just excited to know that my game can help others have fun and learn core mathematical concepts at the same time.

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