Empires: Year-long prealgebra program in a game

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EMPIRES is set in Ancient Mesopotamia during the Neolothic Era, at the brink of the agricultural revolution and the beginning of trade economies. It is an epic story, with enough historical basis to be viewed with a perspective of trust. The game starts with an introductory trailer that creates a captivating setting and introduces characters and compelling plot lines that will keep the story moving. Students manage their empire, tallying assets, investing and distributing resources. As each activity unfolds, opportunities for deep learning of math – and repetitive practice – appear, always woven within the context of the game’s story line. Math comes to life within EMPIRES!

Ratios and proportional relationships are explored as resources are invested in projects; students learn about and practice percentages to build housing; the Pythagorean Theorem serves as a tool that allows the measurement of distance and time between a neighboring empire to complete a trade; and so much more.

We have all seen math games where we answer correctly and an asteroid blows up or the balloon pops. But the solution and animation are disconnected, and they teach essentially that math has little purpose in relationship to the world.

EMPIRES is different. What makes it different is that math content is coherent in a meaningful context. EMPIRES is driven by an engaging story, one of the oldest and most powerful tools of teaching. After uploading a personal picture and transforming into an ancient Mesopotamian, the student assumes the role of lead provident of an empire. The challenges are immediate. Two workers argue over the size of an irrigation ditch going to their two fields. “Fair is fair. We will split the main ditch down the middle!” argues one worker. “But the fields are different sizes. A camel eats more than a goat doesn’t it?” argues the other worker.

The challenge for the student (a.k.a. Provident) is to determine how wide each ditch should be for the water to flow fairly. As simple as the question appears, the multi-step problem leads to the kind of thinking, and habits, teachers want to see in their students. Student focus shifts from wanting to formula and quick answer to patient problem solving and persistence. Students might spend as long as entire class period to solve the irrigation problem, because their reward is authentic. They can then irrigate fields to feed their people. Conceptually it makes sense. And through that, trust for the value and merit of math grows in the minds of students.

The methodology of presenting problems is as important in keeping students engaged as is the content of the problem. Students have “artifacts” they search, essentially mining for data they need. Artwork displays throughout the artifacts, reinforcing not just the algorithms to be used in a problem, but the meaning of the problem they are trying to solve.