Games that actually help you learn science…a new project

Recently people have been posting a twist on Battleship that makes the game board a Periodic Table.  People are saying:  “Cool!  Science!”  From a science learning perspective, there is nothing with real science learning about that game.  What happens when an actual science learning expert and game design enthusiast takes a stab at it?

Whoever made the Periodic Table Battleship game doesn’t have the foggiest clue about why or how we teach the Periodic Table in schools.  We really don’t care that students memorize elements on the Periodic Table.  The reason why people think that the memorization “goal” is needed, is because they had a teacher who made them memorize it.  Look, I’m not saying that memorizing the Periodic Table isn’t useful if you use it often.  But chemistry isn’t a speed contest.  There aren’t chemists out there racing to name elements and their atomic numbers as quickly as they can.  In the actual scientific world, a PhD chemist who is terrible at memorizing can do a very fine job in any chemistry sub field without memorizing a single fact on the Periodic Table.

A quick history lesson:  In the 5th century BC, Greek philosopher Democritus used the term “atomos” (meaning can’t be split) to describe any substance that can’t be broken down further.  People investigated substances according to their properties, with various individuals contributing basic lists of chemical elements (Brand, Lavoisier, others).  Then, the 19th century Russian Dmitri Mendeleev used the fact that many chemical elements had similar properties to each other and applied it to their organization.  He developed his Periodic Table, different from any old regular table, to reflect the fact that elements can be grouped into similar categories based on those properties.

Any discussion of the chemical elements and the periodic table is pretty pointless if you aren’t talking about those categories.  The Periodic Table Battleship game basically has you calling out names of elements instead of the coordinates in Battleship.  You get name recognition, and familiarity, but that’s pretty much it.  It doesn’t teach students to do anything other than to repeat names and increase familiarity. It tells them that there’s a periodic table with names of elements on it and numbers.   Whoop-de-do.   I don’t buy into the excuse that the Battleship game is for “little kids”, that it is introductory, and I’m thinking too high school-ish.

You see, in science education, we group scientific ideas from foundational to complex.  We understand the developmental levels of children.  We understand the critical concept of misconceptions and how ideas that are too abstract too early can do nothing more than reinforce misconceptions.  In my home State of Nebraska, we follow science standards based off of US National Science standards.  They are very closely aligned and based off of longitudinal progressions of learning developed by content and curricular experts who know the heck what they are talking about.

The first mention of chemical elements in the standards doesn’t begin until 6-8 grade.  The Periodic Table isn’t even mentioned until 9-12 grade standards.  The reason is that the Periodic Table isn’t what most people think it is:  a “collection of facts.”  It is a comprehensive tool for representing the wider relationships and similarities between elements, and young brains aren’t ready, nor do they need to be, nor should they start thinking about those relationships until they are in their teens.  The foundational understanding at a young age is far more important than force feeding kids the periodic table early.

Well meaning people do this stuff all the time because they think:  “If I give them the stuff early, they’ll learn more stuff quicker, and they’ll be smarter!”  Talk about a grotesque oversimplification of the learning process. What they’re actually doing is introducing ideas before kids have adequate foundational knowledge and reinforcing societal or parental or early educator misconceptions about what the Periodic Table is (or isn’t in this case).


Many readers may tell me to “lighten up” and “at least it exposes them to science while their playing the game.” Thanks!  You don’t get it.  Learning things incorrectly is far worse than not learning something at all.  How about we just show one-year-olds calligraphy to help prep them for learning to print?   How about we give sixth-year-olds Macbeth and pat ourselves on the back for how “advanced” our kids will be? Sound crazy?  Sound too early?  Sound too advanced?  That’s what “Periodic Table Battleship” is, if it’s target audience is small children.  If it’s target is high school, then our problem becomes that it doesn’t actually teach what the Periodic Table is for or about. (And how unqualified parents are to homeschool their kids.  There, I said it.)

If anyone were actually serious about making a game about the Periodic Table, that game has to include categorization of groups of elements.  If that isn’t part of the game, the game isn’t teaching students anything useful about the Periodic Table.

So my plan is to put together an actual game that is easy to learn and play, but gets high school students thinking about categorization of elements.  Nobody said it has to be complicated.  But it does have to be true to what the Periodic Table actually is, and what we want students to learn about it.  Stay tuned!


One thought on “Games that actually help you learn science…a new project

  1. mchsswe

    I totally agree with what you said about memorization. And BTW, as part of her 8th-grade science project, my daughter made up a Periodic Table board game. I adapted it, and use it in my 9th-grade Earth Science classes.

    Liked by 1 person


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