It’s your first day as a runner in a film studio. You have a challenging to-do list, and as you run through the various sets and back lots, you meet more experienced members of the crew, each with jobs that need your help. The action is fast and furious, the problems are highly visual and engaging, and the whole experience is served up with a large dollop of humour.
Welcome to Star Dash Studios, from National Numeracy.
National Numeracy is a charity with a clear mission: to help improve numeracy across the UK. We work in a variety of ways. In 2014 we launched the Challenge, a website adults can use to discover what level they are working at, set targets, and be find appropriate learning resources. We have 86,000 registrations so far, and we are committed to developing the Challenge further.
However, we need other approaches to reach a broader audience. With support from the Ufi Trust, we decided to create a mobile app aimed at engaging 16 to 25 year-olds.
We started with few preconceptions. The app needed to show the value of maths in daily life and we wanted to ‘gameify’ it somehow. We reviewed many existing maths apps, and the literature on using gaming to support mathematical learning. We agreed the following principles:
- Everyone can think mathematically, but mathematical reasoning, generalisation and sense-making all require effort.
- In a successful video game the player enters an immersive world with levelling, quests and achievements. This can motivate the player to put in considerable effort, and this can potentially be harnessed to support learning in a game requiring mathematical behaviour.
- In a video game failure doesn’t hurt (it’s actually expected), risk-taking is acceptable, and trial and error is encouraged. Players gets feedback on performance, there is always an answer that can be figured out, and on-screen avatars provide a degree of separation between players and on-screen failure.
- These features – effort, motivation, learning from mistakes, and so on – are also characteristics of effective numerate behaviour.
We were also struck by the contrast between the dedication of many players to mastering a game, and the lack of enthusiasm demonstrated by some learners for maths. We decided to try to use positive in-game behaviours to encourage young adults to engage with numeracy.
We wanted our app to show the benefits of using numeracy in real situations, including the world of work. One initial idea was a ‘broken town’ where nothing was working due to the residents’ woeful numeracy skills. The player would fix the town by showing the locals how to do the maths. We were excited about this, but groups of 16 to 25 year-olds we put the idea to weren’t excited at all! The setting felt contrived, and more like a thinly concealed excuse for practising ‘school maths’ than something truly authentic.
Eventually we decided to situate the game in a film studio. This was much more fun and aspirational, while still providing opportunities to show numeracy in action across different on-set professions. Star Dash Studios was born!
By the time we went out to tender to a range of e-learning and games developers, we were increasingly clear – and excited – about the identity of our app. It was first and foremost a game, and not a thinly disguised maths resource. We would be happy if we could get a lot of young adults enjoying a game with some numeracy in it, rather than fewer people using a more traditional ‘maths app’.
We were delighted to give the development contract to award-winning games developers Plug-In Media in Brighton. They brought enormous expertise and experience in making playable and humorous games. We made the game action as enjoyable and addictive as possible, but the best way to do well in the game is to visit members of the film-crew and help them with their jobs. And to do this, you need to use numeracy skills.
Star Dash Studios will not solve the numeracy issue for young adults – but we believe it can get a lot of people using and developing their numeracy.
Derek Huby is an experienced maths educator, writer and advisor, having worked on projects both nationally and internationally. He is the author of a variety of successful textbooks and is a registered Apple software developer.