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Go Fish? That’s so last epoch. Tell your friends to Go Extinct! by Taormina Lepore

This is a post by PLOS Paleo Community guest blogger Taormina Lepore. Read about her adventures at her blog, Outbound Adventurer.

As a science teacher and a paleontologist, I love teaching about evolution. When I taught high school, few things got me more jazzed up than a classroom activity on phylogenetic trees – which are the relationships of organisms within the tree of life.

But in my very urban classroom, filled mostly with apathetic 14-year-olds, each posturing for the Snapchat hierarchy rather than studying for their biology exams, getting those kids to understand evolution and phylogeny was a bigger challenge.

Hell, most of my kids couldn’t even pronounce phylogeny, let alone care about it. Why was it relevant to their lives?

Making phylogeny fun and relatable

Beyond my few precious nerds, who soaked up words like ‘extant phylogenetic bracket’ with great zeal, I was tasked with making sure that all of my students understood the concepts of evolution and phylogeny; I was hell bent on also getting them to enjoy learning about those concepts. After all, why shouldn’t learning be fun?

In a system where “drill-and-kill” worksheets and the almighty end-of-year state course exams rule above creativity in the classroom, making time for hands-on learning was a thorn in my side. It shouldn’t be that way, I know. But we didn’t even have space or supplies for labs. It made me grit my teeth on a daily basis.

How was I going to get my biology students to learn about these great topics like paleontology and cladistics, when we had very few hands-on ways of getting them to learn it? When many of my kids were convinced they’d never be great at science? Or, just as bad, they were convinced science wasn’t fun?

Right. Well, I wasn’t going to let that happen any longer. I had pulled out all the stops before, bringing in videos and actual fossils and even a live Skype Q&A with graduate students hunkered in the basement collections at Stony Brook University.

My kids were going to love phylogeny, even if it drove us all crazy getting there.

Gameplay and development

Enter Ariel Marcy and the Kickstarter-funded board game that made me salivate: Go Extinct! is a remarkable game, with big friendly pictures and cute descriptors that neatly underscore a rigorous set of scientific underpinnings.

It functions kind of like Go Fish: students have a number of cards in their hands, each matching to a colorful representation of an animal group on a phylogenetic tree. Players can ask each other whether they have a certain member of a clade, until they’ve collected all the clades – and voila, kids get a solid grasp on what a clade is: all the representatives of a common ancestor, and the common ancestor itself. If you don’t have a member of a clade in your hand, you must say – that’s right – Go Extinct!

Why yes, I would love to collect all of my fur scrambles. I mean, monotremes. Image courtesy of Ariel Marcy, CC-BY.

This board game is a science teacher’s dream.

And it’s fun. If I had my own children, I’d play it with them. If I hadn’t left my copy of the game at the school where I taught, one of my legacy items thrust upon my successors, I’d probably still play it.

Friendly competition, self-motivation, and team teaching

Another benefit of classroom gaming is the sly way it sneaks learning into bouts of friendly competition. If there was one thing that got my students excited and ready to learn, it was their competitive streak. Game-ifying the K-12 classroom is a big buzzword phrase in education, and I’m all for bringing games into learning, and feeding off of that competitive interaction.

Teamwork and camaraderie are just part of the benefits kids get when they use this form of trickery to get them to learn – and they really do retain the information if they remember just how badly they knew it better than their opponents.

I spoke with the game’s creator, who is herself an accomplished scientist and game designer with a passionate educational streak. Ariel Marcy created the game out of a need for more interactive and self-motivating ways for kids to learn science.

“Games in general make great learning tools because they’re motivating, actively engage players (as opposed to passive learning like listening to a lecture or reading a textbook), and allow them to learn from ‘failure’ without repercussion,” says Ariel. “Tabletop games are particularly valuable because they’re easier to set up, require fewer technological resources, and they’re social, which encourages students to teach and learn from each other.”

Yes. Yes, and yes. If I, as an educator, can get my kids to teach one another, then they’ve demonstrated solid knowledge and mastery of that topic. If they have fun doing it, and can supplement or even replace lecture learning and other passive methods, then I’m all for it.

Ariel has written about the benefits of this kind of gaming, and she’s connected Go Extinct! with a bunch of Next Generation Science Standards that make it relevant to the learning and teaching goals that educators need to align with their classroom activities.

“Miss Lepore. Why do we have to learn about this, anyway?”

When I brought the game into my classroom, I used it mainly for tutorial sessions that were close-knit and one-on-one. This was great, because I just had one copy of the game, and the kids who showed up for tutorials were desperate for extra help. At first some of them scoffed at the idea of playing a board game to learn, because let’s face it, they’re 14 and board games were for babies.

Right?

In five minutes I had my least motivated kids in class teaching my dinosaur nerd how to play, while all the students involved got excited about collecting clades. I could have called Ariel right then and given her an over-the-phone hug, because some of these were kids that I was convinced never would have learned or cared about clades and phylogeny. Their test scores improved, too.

Ariel has seen similar reactions with other high school students, like Barbara Marss’ classes. You can hear about Barbara’s students’ use of the game on YouTube right here.

Students having fun with phylogeny. It can be done! Image courtesy of Barbara Marrs.
Students having fun with phylogeny. It can be done! Image courtesy of Barbara Marrs.

Teacher Barbara Marss says of her experience: “The reaction of high school students was really good and students got to help each other – students who were strong card players but perhaps not as strong academically were equal on the playing field and got to teach the less strong card players who were sometimes the more academically-minded content-focused students.”

Best of all, this game is applicable to all kinds of educational settings. From elementary school to college, and homeschool settings, Go Extinct! is the kind of game that has broad appeal.

If you’re an educator, a parent, or a scientist who loves board games, and if you’re looking for a great way to bring gaming into your classroom – regardless of the age of your students, then Go Extinct! is a pretty stellar way to make phylogeny exciting.

If you want to purchase Go Extinct!, you can do so right here.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to collect some clades.

Taormina LeporeTaormina is a consultant paleontologist in southern California. Her research has focused on the paleoecological interpretation of trace fossils in New England and the western United States, including dinosaur tracks and coprolites (fossilized droppings).

Her blog: Outbound Adventurer

On Twitter: @OutboundTreks

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