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Using games to teach science

Does anyone use board games/strategy games to teach science? I don’t mean “Let’s make a game out of…” , nor “Let’s take a boardgame and apply it to science” – I’m thinking about strategic games (generally sold in game stores that cater to adults) where real science is part of the gameplay by design.

Eurogames Using games to teach science Pandemic Tesla Evolution

What type of games are we talking about?

We’re not talking about abstract strategy games, like Chess, Go, Pente, Checkers or othello. Nor we are talking about typical American board games,  which usually are based on direct conflict between players, and have a significant degree of luck. Instead, we’re focusing on a category sometimes called Eurogames, or German-style board games.

They are a class of tabletop games that generally have indirect player interaction, and colorful physical components, which emphasize strategy while downplaying luck and conflict. They usually keep all the players in the game until it ends.

There are several games worth looking into.

Biology & Ecology games

Evolution, by North Star Games.

This game lets you create and adapt their own species in a dynamic ecosystem with hungry predators and limited resources. Traits like Hard Shell and Horns will protect you from Carnivores, while a Long Neck will help you get food that others cannot reach. With over 12,000 different species to create, every game becomes a different adventure. So gather your friends around the table and see who will best adapt their species to eat, multiply and thrive! Contents: 129 Trait Cards (17 Carnivore Trait Cards, 7 of each other Trait Card), 20 Species Boards, 40 Wooden Markers, 144 Food Tokens, 12 Ten Value Food Tokens, 1 Watering Hole Board, etc.

‎Dominant species by GMT games Can be used to teach evolution by natural selection.

Recreates a tiny portion of ancient history: the ponderous encroachment of an Ice Age and what that entails for the living creatures trying to adapt to the slowly-changing Earth. Each player assumes the role of one of six major Animal groups—Mammal, Reptile, Bird, Amphibian, Arachnid or Insect. Each begins the game in a state of natural balance with regards to one another. But that won’t last: It is indeed “survival of the fittest.” Through wily Action Pawn placement, players will strive to become Dominant on as many different Terrain tiles as possible… Players will be aided in these endeavors via Growth, Migration and Domination actions, among others. All of this eventually leads to the end game – the final ascent of the Ice Age – where the player with the most Victory Points will have his Animal crowned the Dominant Species.

Dominant species game (1)

‎Cytosis: A Cell Biology, Board Game

Players take turns placing workers on available organelles within a human cell in order to collect resources (such as Carbohydrates or ATP!) or take actions (such as purchasing Cell Component cards or translating mRNA into Proteins.) Players use their resources to build Enzymes, Hormones, and Hormone Receptors and also to help detoxify the cell – all of which score health points. The player with the most health points at the end of the game wins!

Cytosis board game

Linkage: A DNA Card Game by Genius Games

In Linkage, each player links RNA cards side by side to build their own RNA strand, attempting to copy the shared DNA Template. Players must choose between BUILDING on their own RNA strand, REPAIRING their RNA strand, or Mutating an opposing strand. Players earn points based upon how accurately their RNA strands match the DNA template.

Peptide: A Protein Building Card Game, by Genius Games

Photosynthesis, by blue orange

Biology: Diseases, Viruses

Pathogenesis, by WIBAI Games

Pathogenesis is a deck building game in which players take the role of bacterial pathogens attacking the human body. The game was developed in partnership with scientific illustrator somersault1824. Based on real science and the mechanics were created to mimic how real biology works.

Pandemic, by Z-Man Games

Four diseases have broken out in the world and it is up to a team of specialists in various fields to find cures for these diseases before mankind is wiped out. Players must work together playing to their characters’ strengths and planning their strategy of eradication before the diseases overwhelm the world with ever-increasing outbreaks. For example the Operation Specialist can build research stations which are needed to find cures for the diseases. The Scientist needs only 4 cards of a particular disease to cure it instead of the normal 5. But the diseases are out breaking fast and time is running out: the team must try to stem the tide of infection in diseased areas while also towards cures. A truly cooperative game where you all win or you all lose.

Plague, Inc.

Virulence An Infectious Card Game by Genius Games

Physics games

‎Antimatter matters, an elbowfish game. Teaches modern physics

Explore the strange and wonderful world of quantum physics, where a handful of tiny particles interact to form the atoms that make up ourselves and everything we experience in the world around us.  As the lead scientist on an orbiting space laboratory, you are in charge of humanity’s first attempt to construct ordinary matter from individually captured elementary particles. Encounter hazards like quantum entanglement, antimatter collisions and solar flares messing up your instruments, while facing the actions of other player-scientists racing toward the same goal. Will you be the first to collect the right particles and successfully build an atom? The game balances strategic choices with interactions with other players and the unpredictable nature of the universe. Simple rules-10 minutes to learn. Visual design uses double-coding to make it accessible to gamers with color-blindness and to those with limited vision or fine-motor skill.

Tesla vs. Edison, by Artana

You control a start-up company in the early days of the U.S. electric industry. In the beginning you only have your lead inventor, some shares of preferred stock, and some money. Over the course of the game you will be hiring other famous technicians and business people to work for you. Each luminary or inventor has their own special abilities. There are four focuses in the game: claiming electric projects on the map, advancing up a tech tree, investing in public relations to improve public opinion of your company or the technologies it uses, and buying and selling stock on a dynamic market.

Physics Laws: Discovering STEM – Inertia, Friction, Circular Motion and Energy Conservation Building Set (118 Piece) – by Engino – any reviews?

Laser Maze, by Thinkfun

Board games for physics classroom from Boardgamegeek.com

Games listed on educationaltoolsportal

Chemistry games

Chemistry Fluxx (Looney Labs)

Learn how elements combine and interact as you try to match the current goal and win. Students and adults can both play and remain competitive. Elements are listed with their Atomic number and their bohr Atomic model, and are color coded by Type: alkaline earth metals, transition metals, noble gases, etc.

Covalence: A Molecule Building Game, by Genius Games

In covalence, players work together to accurately build a number of secret Organic molecules. One player has knowledge of the molecules, while all other players must deduce what these secret molecules are, based upon a limited number of clues given to them by the knower.

Compounded Board Game, by Greater Than Games

Compounded is a game about building chemical compounds through careful management of elements, a fair bit of social play and trading, and just a bit ok luck. In Compounded, players take on the roles of lab managers, hastily competing to complete the most compounds before they are completed by others – or destroyed in an explosion.

Ion: A Compound Building Card Game by Genius Games

Valence Plus, by Science Ninjas

Build elite teams out of elements from the periodic table to find molecules and win the game! But be careful – opponents might attack you with acid squads, reducing your bases to worthless salt and water! It’s all here – molecule formation, acids and bases, chemical reactions, even advanced concepts like secondary oxidation states.


Engineering games


History of science & the scientific method

Progress: Evolution of Technology, NSKN Games.

Progress Technology game

Each player takes his civilization from early antiquity and learns various technologies, moving progressively to the Middle Ages, the Industrial Revolution, and Modern Times and ending with today’s Internet or Social Welfare. The 210 technology cards in the game are divided into three ages (Ancient, Middle Ages, Industrial) and three types (Military, Science and Culture). With every advancement on a path, you gain easier access to its more advanced technologies and you’ll end up opening the door to the next age.

The New Science, Conquistador games

In The New Science you play as Isaac Newton, Galileo or one of three other great minds from the scientific revolution in 17th century Europe. You are in a tense intellectual race with your opponents, attempting to publish your remarkable scientific discoveries first in order to gain prestige, be seen as the finest mind of your era, and consequently be appointed the first President of the Royal Society. You achieve this by first researching, then experimenting on, and finally publishing new discoveries. But you need to carefully decide what and when to publish: while the only way to win is publishing to gain prestige, all other scientists will read your books and gain the same knowledge, costing you a key advantage. You’ve precious little energy to put into the many groundbreaking scientific disciplines. Your efforts will be further impacted by critical happenings in the world around you, requiring savvy as well as smarts. The New Science is a fast-playing worker placement and area control game for 2-5 players.

Astronomy & Space games

Xtronaut: The Game of Solar System Exploration, by Xtronaut Enterprises

Captures the real-world science, technology, and challenges of planetary exploration. Easy to learn, gives 2 – 4 players ages 7 and up the chance to develop space missions, build authentic rocket systems, and explore the solar system. Designed by NASA scientists. Exposes players to space science concepts related to planning and undertaking a real space mission.



Keep in mind that most people need at least an entire class period of playing through the game in order to fully grasp the concepts and strategy. Using games would thus be most productive if they were scheduled as part of the curriculum, with several sequential days set aside for playing the game/class experience.

At the beginning of each class, one should carefully explain the objectives:

  • Yes, having fun is one of the objectives!
  • But we’re also doing this to learn grade-level content knowledge and skills.
  • The knowledge and skills that we’re getting actually addresses Next Generation Science standards for content and skills; and Common Core Curriculum standards for contents and skills.


Sample learning standards

Antimatter matters, Elbowfish Games

Massachusetts Introductory Physics

HS-PS1-8. Develop a model to illustrate the energy released or absorbed during the processes of fission, fusion, and radioactive decay.

HS-PS3-2. Develop and use a model to illustrate that energy at the macroscopic scale can be accounted for as either motions of particles and objects or energy stored in fields.

PS1.A Structure of matter: The sub-atomic structural model and interactions between electric charges at the atomic scale can be used to explain the structure and interactions of matter.

Progression of Crosscutting Concepts Across the Grades: Systems and System Models – , students can investigate or analyze a system by defining its boundaries and initial conditions, as well as its inputs and outputs. They can use models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) to simulate the flow of energy, matter, and interactions within and between systems at different scales. They can also use models and simulations to predict the behavior of a system, and recognize that these predictions have limited precision and reliability due to the assumptions and approximations inherent in the models.

Common Core ELA Literacy

Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks; analyze the specific results based on explanations in the text.

Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 11-12 texts and topics.

Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.


How to teach AP physics

It’s easy to teach physics in a wordy and complicated way – but taking a concept and breaking it down into simple steps, and presenting ideas in a way that are easily comprehensible to the eager student, is more challenging.

Yet that is what Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman excelled at.  The same skills that made one a good teacher also caused one to more fully understand the topic him/herself. This was Feynman’s basic method of learning.

Feynman How to teach physics

1) Develop an array of hands-on labs that allow one to study basic phenomenon.

You can also use many wonderful online simulations, such as PhET or Physics Aviary.

2) Each day go over several problems in class. They need to see a master teacher take what appears to be a complex word problem, and turn it into equations.

3.) Insure that students take good notes.  One way of doing this is having the occasional surprise graded notebook check (say, twice per month.)

4) Each week assign homework. Each day randomly call a few students to put one of their solutions on the board. Recall that the goal is not to get the correct numerical answer. (That sometime can come by luck or cheating.) Focus on the derivation. Does the student understand which basic principles are involved?

5) Keep track of strengths and weaknesses: Is there a weakness in algebra, trigonometry, or geometry?  When you see a pattern emerge, assign problem sets that require mastering the weak area – not to punish them, but to build skills. Start with a few very easy problems, and slowly build in complexity. Let them work in groups if you like.

6) Don’t drown yourself in paperwork: Don’t grade every problem, from every student, every day. You could easily work 24 hours a day and still have more work to do. Only collect & grade some percent of the homework.

7) Focus on simple drawings – or for classes that uses programming to simulate physics phenomenon – simple animations. Are the students capable of sketching free-body diagrams that strip away extraneous info? Can they diagram out all the forces on an object?

8) Give frequent assessments that are easy to grade.

9) Get books such as TIPERS for Physics, or Ranking Task Exercises in Physics. They are diagnostic tools to check for misconceptions.. Call publishers for free sample textbooks and resources. For a textbook I happen to like Giancoli Physics; their teacher solution manual is very well thought out.

Organic molecule models

At Seaport Academy, science education isn’t about drills and worksheets. We motivate students with hands-on activities, interactive apps, three dimensional animations, connections to the world around then, and labs.

Here we’re learning about organic molecules by building three dimensional models, and using magnetic board manipulatives.

Building molecules kit

Our smartboard is also a magnetic workspace.

Building organic molecules on board

Learning Standards

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework

HS-LS1-6. Construct an explanation based on evidence that organic molecules are primarily composed of six elements, where carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms may combine with nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus to form monomers that can further combine to form large carbon-based macromolecules.
• Monomers include amino acids, mono- and disaccharides, nucleotides, and fatty acids.
• Organic macromolecules include proteins, carbohydrates (polysaccharides), nucleic acids, and lipids.

Prof Devel log NGSS Science discussion group

Sample prof development log for teachers in a NGSS Science Facebook discussion group.

Prof Development Log for FB Science teachers group (MS Doc format)

Prof Development Log for FB Science teachers group, PDF format


Concept Maps

We’re teaching our students how to translate articles into concept maps: these are graphical tool that depict relationships between concepts. They are used by students, engineers, and technical writers, to organize and structure knowledge.

Here’s an example of how one could take ideas related to energy and electricity, and show how they are related:

Electricity Concept Map
A concept map typically represents ideas and information as boxes or circles.


They are connected with labeled arrows.

The relationship between concepts often shows us cause-and-effect, with terms like: causes, requires, or “contributes to.”


How to create a concept map

Read the article

Identify the main concepts

How are the concepts related to each other?

Draw a rough map: draw each concept inside a square or circle

Draw arrows showing how one action or event affects another

You can use symbols “+” for increase, and ” – ” for decrease.

Here’s an example of an astronomy concept map

Astronomy concept map

Learning Standards

Why should teachers use concept maps? According to the National Research Council, experts differ from novices in that experts notice features and patterns of information, have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect deep understanding. Their knowledge cannot be reduced to a set of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). More important, experts have efficiently coded and organized this information into well-connected schemas that help experts interpret new information and notice features and meaningful patterns of information that might be overlooked by less competent learners (Pellegrino, Chudowshy, and Glaser 2001).

As students gain mastery of concept maps, they develop an understanding of relationships among elements of a concept, ultimately making incremental gains in moving from novice to expert-level learners. Furthermore, by constructing concept maps, students enhance a metacognitive approach to learning by negotiating their ideas, taking control of their own learning, and monitoring their progress. As the learner physically draws the connection between two subtopics, he/she reinforces that same connection mentally.

From “Making the Most of Concept Maps”, Douglas Llewellyn, National Science Teachers Association

Note taking skills

Three main ways to take notes: Cornell notes, Guided notes & Harvard notes

James Kennedy Annotated notebook

No one note-taking system is always best. The type of notes that helps one the most depends on the subject and material.


Cornell Notes

A systematic format for condensing and organizing notes. The student divides the paper into two columns: the note-taking column (usually on the right) is twice the size of the questions/key word column (on the left). The student should leave five to seven lines, or about two in (5 cm), at the bottom of the page.

Notes from a class are written in the note-taking column; they consist of the main ideas; long ideas are paraphrased. Long sentences are avoided; symbols or abbreviations are used instead. To assist with future reviews, relevant questions (which should be recorded as soon as possible so that the lecture and questions will be fresh in the student’s mind) or key words are written in the key word column.

Within 24 hours of taking the notes, the student must revise and write questions, and then write a brief summary in the bottom five to seven lines of the page. This helps to increase understanding of the topic.

When reviewing the material, the student can cover the note-taking (right) column while attempting to answer the questions/keywords in the key word or cue (left) column.
_ Wikipedia

The Cornell Note Taking system (2 page PDF file)


Guided Notes

“Sometimes lecturers may provide handouts of guided notes, which provide a “map” of the lecture content with key points or ideas missing. Students then fill in missing items as the lecture progresses. Guided notes may assist students in following lectures and identifying the most important ideas from a lecture. This format provides students with a framework, yet requires active listening (as opposed to providing copies of powerpoint slides in their entirety). Research has shown that guided notes improve students’ recording of critical points in lecture as well as their quiz scores on related content.” – Wikipedia

Example of guided notes for a biology class:

Guided notes


Harvard Notes

This is a very well organized and common note-taking system. When taking notes from a book or lecture:
 Write down the main idea of at least every other paragraph.
 Use phrases, not complete sentences
 Where you have a I, you have to have a II; where you have an A, you have to
have a B
 You don’t need sub ideas


Harvard notes

Image from hicksvillepublicschools.org, note taking systems.



Here is a example from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Center for College and Student Success, note-taking methods.

Harvard outline example


Related articles

For Note Taking, Low-Tech is Often Best; In college lecture halls, evidence suggests it’s time to put down the laptop and pick up a pen. By Susan Dynarski

Wikipedia text is from “Note-taking.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 5 Mar. 2018.


Our school is right by Boston Harbor – learning about the sea is second nature to many of our staff. So we love to tie maritime history and science into our curriculum.

Binnacle maritime

Photo by RK

As you enter our school, you pass by a binnacle – what was it used for?

A binnacle is a waist-high case, found on the deck of a ship, that holds the compass.

It is mounted in gimbals to keep it level while the ship pitched and rolled.

It also has a mechanism to compensate for errors in detecting the Earth’s magnetic field.

Every ship’s captain would use one, for navigating in and out of Boston Harbor, and around the world.


Here we see Boston Harbor – now let’s get in to how the binnacle works!

Boston Harbor Islands map

This map is from mass.gov/eea/images/dcr


Why did we need to develop the binnacle?

Excerpted from Magnetic Deviation: Comprehension, Compensation and Computation by Ron Doerfler  

Today, radio navigational systems such as LORAN and GPS, and inertial navigation systems with ring and fiber-optic gyros, gyrocompasses and the like have reduced the use of a ship’s compass to worst-case scenarios. But this triumph of mathematics and physics over the mysteries of magnetic deviation, entered into at a time when magnetic forces were barely understood and set against the backdrop of hundreds of shipwrecks and thousands of lost lives, is an enriching chapter in the history of science.

The Sources of Compass Error

Ron Doerfler writes:

Compasses on ships fail to point to true (geographic) north due to two factors:

Magnetic variation (or magnetic declination) – the angle between magnetic north and geographic north due to the local direction of the Earth’s magnetic field, and

Magnetic deviation – the angle between the compass needle and magnetic north due to the presence of iron within the ship itself.

The algebraic sum of the magnetic variation and the magnetic deviation is known as the compass error. It is a very important thing to know.

Magnetic Variation

Magnetic variation has been known from voyages since the early 1400s at least. Certainly Columbus was distressed as he crossed the Atlantic to find that magnetic north and true north (from celestial sightings) drifted significantly…

We now know that the locations of the Earth’s magnetic poles are not coincident with the geographic poles—not even close, really—and they are always wandering around.

magnetic north pole deviation

Image from commons.wikimedia.org, Magnetic_North_Pole_Positions. Red circles mark magnetic north pole positions as determined by direct observation, blue circles mark positions modelled using the GUFM model (1590–1980) and the IGRF model (1980–2010) in 2 year increments.


What’s the difference between where a compass needle points (magnetic north) and the geographic north pole? This is called the declination  It’s smallest near the equator, but generally gets large as one moves towards the poles.

On this map, the green arrows – the direction from the compass – point towards the magnetic north. The red arrows point towards the geographical north pole.

Notice how the left location (in Pacific ocean) shows the compass point a bit east of where we’d hope it would point; in the right location (in Atlantic Ocean) it shows the compass point a bit west of where we’d hope it points.

There’s also a special line where the magnetic north and geographic north point in the same direction.

Magnetic Declination

Image from Drillingformulas.com by Rachain J i


Here we can see how many degrees of deviation there are – the # of degrees between where the compass points, and where the north pole is. But – wait for it – the image is changing? The magnetic fields are significantly changing every year!

Estimated declination contours by year

from USGS.gov, faqs, what is declination


Magnetic Deviation

Ron Doerfler writes

There is an additional effect on the compass needle that took much longer to appreciate and even longer to understand. This magnetic deviation is due to the iron in a ship…

The first notice in print of this effect was by Joao de Castro of Portugal in 1538, in which he identified “the proximity of artillery pieces, anchors and other iron” as the source.

As better compass designs appeared, a difference in compass readings with their placement on the same ship became more apparent. Captains John Smith and James Cook warned about iron nails in the compass box or iron in steerage, and on Cook’s second circumnavigation William Wales found that changes in the ship’s course changed their measurements of magnetic variation by as much as 7°.

Here we see a modern naval vessel, with it’s own magnetic field. As a metal ship moves through Earth’s magnetic field, an electric current is produced within all that metal – and that current produces it’s own magnetic field. This field can affect the ship’s compass. That’s why a binnacle is designed to be adjustable, to compensate for this field. – RK

Degaussing magnetic field ship

image from slideplayer.com/slide/1632522/


Ron Doerfler writes

Captain Matthew Flinders (1774-1815) spent years in the very early 1800s on voyages to investigate these effects…. [he] eventually discovered that an iron bar placed vertically near the compass helped overcome the magnetic deviation. This Flinder’s bar is still used today in ships’ binnacles.


Apps & Interactives

NOAA Historical Magnetic Declination


Hands-on Activity: Nautical Navigation. Teachengineering.org




Educational opportunities and museums




Important components

Quadrantal spheres (spherical quadrantal correctors)

Hood, over the compass bowl

flinders bar (vertical, soft iron corrector)

Learning Standards

Ocean Literacy Scope and Sequence for Grades K-12
6. The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected: From the ocean we get foods, medicines, and mineral and energy resources. In addition, it provides jobs, supports our nation’s economy, serves as a highway for transportation of goods and people, and plays a role in national security.

Massachusetts 2016 Science and Technology/Engineering (STE) Standards
7.MS-PS2-5. Use scientific evidence to argue that fields exist between objects with mass, between magnetic objects, and between electrically charged objects that exert force on each other even though the objects are not in contact.

HS-PS2-1. Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion is a mathematical model describing change in motion (the acceleration) of objects when acted on by a net force….{forces can include magnetic forces}

HS-PS3-5. Develop and use a model of magnetic or electric fields to illustrate the forces and changes in energy between two magnetically or electrically charged objects changing relative position in a magnetic or electric field, respectively.

History standards

National Standards for History Basic Edition, 1996
5-12 Identify major technological developments in shipbuilding, navigation, and naval warfare and trace the cultural origins of various innovations.

Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework
The Political, Intellectual and Economic Growth of the Colonies. Explain the importance of maritime commerce in the development of the economy of colonial Massachusetts, using historical societies and museums as needed.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: A Framework for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, National Council for the Social Studies, 2010.