Math Evolve by Adam Coccari

Math Evolve by Adam Coccari

Teachers as the creators of the technology

The time where teachers just modelled or facilitated learning using new technologies has long passed.Recently, their interest in new technologies started to shift from ‘user’ profile to ‘creator’. Today, there are fantastic apps and softwares designed directly by teachers. The story behind each creators interest in making an app or software is going to vary. I tried out Math Evolve for iPads and I had to say I was very impressed not only with the design features of the app, but also with its content. Looking at how the progression of mathematical concepts were created. I wondered if the designer had talked to a maths teacher. I was neither right nor wrong as the designer was a teacher. So this is the story behind the creation of MATH EVOLVE by ADAM COCCARI, Founder of InterAction Education and an Elementary school teacher.

The Concept

The origins of Math Evolve began long ago, when I was a child growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, enchanted by the thrill and creativity of playing video games. However, like most inventions, the idea to create a maths game came from practical challenges in my daily life. I started teaching 4th grade in a small independent school with no formal training or education degree. I knew that I loved working with kids and helping people learn, so I thought it would be a great place to start.  The school quickly saw my interest and ability to teach maths concepts, so I was put in charge of the maths classes and curriculum for 4th grade. As you probably remember, in 3rd and 4th grade you are forced to memorize your multiplication facts (times tables), usually through a mixture of flash cards, verbal recitation, and speed drills. Some children take to this naturally and learn them quickly, but for others it is painful. Unlike some subjects, knowing the multiplication facts is absolutely because they are the foundation of all maths that comes afterwards (fractions, percentages, ratios, ect).  So, it became my task to get my students to reach automaticity with the facts through any means necessary.  I would use every tool in my arsenal: flash cards, visual aids, physical toys, and long speeches to teach them about how important it was.

I would have them play games, jump around the room like a madman, and even have them do relay races involving multiplication, all with the hopes of getting them excited about maths.

It was a tough battle, because at the core of it, memorizing these facts is really boring for most kids.  The flash cards and quizzes can feel like torture, and it becomes even harder when they get home.  They need to practice in the evenings, but the kids loathe it and the parents don’t want to get in fights every night about it.  It becomes a source of tension for a lot of parents, and most would rather give up and enjoy the time with their kids than get in a fight every night about flash cards.

It was in this context that I realized that both teachers and parents needed better ways to make maths. We used a computer lab for an hour a week, and I started using a lot of free educational games on the Internet to reinforce the maths facts. I grew up loving video games as a kid, so I knew first hand how engrossing and rewarding games could be. The kids loved the games because they provided a fun change of pace, instant feedback, and competition amongst each other. I saw the power of educational games and the potential they held, but most of the games that were available were very basic and cheaply made, so the kids would tire of them quickly and never choose to play them in their own time.

It was around this time that the iPad was first released, and I bought the first version.  I brought it over to a student’s house for a tutoring session, because I knew this particular student was obsessed with video games but had a deep aversion to maths. I found a few maths games for him to play, and I watched as his fear and anger toward maths practice melted away as he tried to defeat some robot dogs in an app called Maths Ninja. I saw how well the touch screen worked as a device for educational content, and his anxiety about maths was alleviated when presented in a game context. Although I found a few good apps for my students to play, I was surprised by the general lack of truly fun and high-quality educational games available for the iPad and iPhone (this was 2010). Most apps merely presented the facts in flash card format, requiring you to simply type in or touch the correct answer. These apps usually had the maths separate from the game, thus the game became a thinly-veiled way to get children to practice maths facts in the traditional format.

 After surveying the app market, I knew that I could do better. With my understanding of video games and the wacky tastes of 4th graders, I felt confident that I could create a game that would be fun and entertaining for anyone, regardless of the fact that it was ‘educational’. My goal was to create a maths game that would be so fun that children would choose to play it on their own, thus turning maths practice into something that students would want to engage in happily instead of being a battle. The CreationAfter deciding that I would invest my life savings into creating a maths game, I started coming up with game concepts that could match my vision. I would draw designs on paper, and thought of many different styles of games that could be integrated with maths.    A friend of mine suggested a game in which you flew through the sky in three dimensions, hitting numbers to solve equations.  I really liked the idea, but I had been enjoying a few top-down shooter games on the iPad and decided to make it a 2-d reminiscent of old games I grew up loving.I began designing the game through a mixture of mock-ups, written specifications, crudely made demos. I knew that i wanted it to play and feel like a classic video game, with multiple levels, weapon upgrades, bosses, and an engaging narrative.  At the same time, I wanted the app to function effectively in a classroom setting and provide valuable feedback for teachers. From the beginning I knew that I wanted to support multiple student profiles and include a Practice Mode that was highly customizable and tracked student performance. Once I had a good idea of what I wanted, I started looking for people to help me bring it to life.It was around this time I had the incredible fortune of partnering with the person that would give Math Evolve its visual style and personality. Clinton Bopp, the art teacher at my school, was an incredible painter and illustrator pursuing a separate career as an artist. I mentioned my project to him one day, and he instantly offered to help, no questions asked.  We started by brainstorming the theme and setting for the game; should it be set underwater? In Outer space? In the jungle? Our creative sessions were loose and freewheeling, and would always involve us drawing ideas and throwing concepts on the wall.In the end, we ended up with a variety of different themes but couldn’t decide which one we liked the best. This is why we decided to use just a few of them, and have the main character ‘evolve’ through the different environments. When I mentioned the concept to my students, they responded positively and excitedly started adding their twist on it. My students became an amazing source of inspiration and a critical part of the creative process. We would bring in the new drawings and ask for their input, and they would come up to me at recess and tell me about ideas they had for the game.One of my students came to me in class one one day said, “You should have one of those crazy fishes with the lightbulb on their head, but have it shoot lasers!””Genius,” I replied, and that became the boss for level 8.  It was very satisfying having the students at school involved, because they loved seeing some of their ideas come to life and it kept us true to the zany and original style that appeals to kids. We originally had an orca whale as a main character, but we discovered that the girls much preferred a dolphin. They helped us select and shape our designs until we had a final set of enemies and characters that would be included in Math Evolve.Finding the right team to create the app was difficult, but I settled on a video game studio in Colombia and partnered with a publisher in New York called Zephyr Games. I wanted a company that was experienced with creating games, not just apps, because if Math Evolve was going to stand out among the thousands of other maths apps on the store, I knew that it was going to have to be a truly premium experience that was as good as the apps kids played on their own for fun. I managed the development process on the side, often coming home from work and staying up late at night to test the latest version and send feedback to Colombia.

As the app developed, I would bring it in to school and have my students and friends test it and provide feedback. As in all projects like this, we made lots of changes along the way in response to input from our testers. The most important insight was that some kids were very good at video games but struggled with the maths, whilst others were very good at the maths elements but had no experience playing a game like Math Evolve.  This caused me to separate the game difficulty and the maths difficulty options, which is the feature that makes Math Evolve suitable for a very wide range of skills and abilities.

Math Evolve In The Wild

Now that Math Evolve has been out for 18 months, I couldn’t be happier with the response it has received from both parents, teachers, and students around the world. It has received many wonderful reviews and rewards, and is now available on every platform.  I have had many parents write to me and leave reviews saying that Math Evolve is their child’s favorite app, or that it is the only way they can get their child to practice maths. This let me know that we were successful in realizing my initial goals, and that Math Evolve has given parents a fun way to improve and reinforce maths facts at home without a battle.

We have also seen lots of educational sales from schools and districts around the world. I think the best way to use Math Evolve in a classroom setting is as a change-of-pace activity to reinforce the facts that students are learning through other methods, or as a station through which groups of students rotate. Other teachers use it as a reward (which I love), for successfully completing other maths assignments. I don’t know exactly where and how it is being used everywhere, but It’s great to occasionally see things about Math Evolve being used in education. Just last week the New York Times published an article about the use of iPads in Dutch schools, and opened the piece by saying that Math Evolve has been incorporated into the curriculum of the Netherlands. A teacher sent me a video once on twitter of her entire classroom in England playing Math Evolve together, and all the kids were cheering and celebrating as they destroyed the enemies.  These moments make me feel like we have truly succeeded and also incredibly proud, knowing that an idea that started as a dream and sketches on paper has touched thousands of students across the world.

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