September Updates: Systems and Ecosystems, Sprout, and IndieCade

What’s been going on? As usual, a huge variety of challenging and interesting stuffs.

The school year has launched, and I’ve begun teaching several STEAM classes at One Spark Academy. Among those classes is an updated version of Systems and Ecosystems, this time with a unit on ecological footprints. By tracing flows of matter and energy backwards through the pieces in The Puzzle of Life, players can get a rough estimate of the ecological footprint of various plants, animals, and humans. From this, players can learn why tree-huggers tend to be vegetarian, why there will always be many more rabbits than bobcats, and more!

In other news, I’ve made big progress with Sprout. The end of production is in sight. After that comes publishing – first to Steam and Itch, and (fortune willing) to Android devices via the Google Play store. This will be our first published digital product, expanding breadth of our portfolio, and the scope of our consulting opportunities.

Last but not least, IndieCade comes! On Friday afternoon, I will be one of the speakers at the Game Design Microtalks. Then on Saturday, I will share The Puzzle of Life at IndieCade’s Game Tasting event.

Really! IndieCade is just about the best thing ever. If you make a point to come, I promise you won’t regret it!

– Tim

August Updates: Words, words, and more words

WordsVsTimeOnce again, the major project has been our intereactive e-book, Exploring Matter … In SPACE! On this front, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that I finished a full first draft. The design document – which details narrative, dialog, and workings of interactive elements – weighs in at just over 23K words. Being a numbers person, I tracked both hours and words, and discovered that I’ve produced a remarkably consistent 270 draft-words per hour (see image). While this draft is rather lumpy – hanging narrative threads, some excessive wordiness, etc – I’m really proud of all the concepts.

The bad news is that rough estimates put the production cost of this design at 5x the current production budget. Yes. Five times. 500%. We’re not in the ballpark. We’re somewhere out in the Arctic Circle. Best case is that we’ll have to cut over half the interactive content. This means losing all the playful/narrative interactions, and perhaps losing some of the science-focused interactions as well.

This bad news really knocked me on my keister. For all that the draft is flawed, I am truly proud of the concepts. It has bad puns, cow jokes, interactive thought experiments, and a culminating life-and-death mini-game where you have to use your knowledge of science to save your home.

Having had a couple weeks to reorient my expectations, I’m back upright, though still sad. I’ve made a rough prioritization of the various book features. When the official page-by-page cost estimates come in, I’m ready to do what needs to be done, cut what needs cutting, and make this the best it can be – within real world constraints.

The book will be much less than I’d hoped, but it will be solid, and better than average. We will not allow the ideal best to compromise the good that can come from a solid job.

This month, I’ve been particularly grateful for the support of friends, family and patrons. Hugs and positive words make a big difference when this sort of news hits.

– Tim

July Updates: Matter in Space, New Mexico, and more!


                   Thinking about easter eggs eggs in Exploring Matter.

The major project in June was Exploring Matter in Space! (tentative title). This has turned out to be a much bigger project than I expected. In large part, this is because I have big dreams. It’s both a superpower and a character flaw.

In this book, there is so much that could and should be said that it’s hard to winnow the wheat from the other wheat (yes, it’s all wheat here). Though some difficulty also comes from the fact that this is an honestly difficult project. It’s a book – so there ought to be a lot of telling. It’s also an interactive and illustrated book, so there ought to be a lot of showing and doing as well. Finding a good balance of these strategies has been tough, especially given the relatively small size of the book (40-70 pages) and short timeframe (2 months). I’ll post a half-draft on the semi-secret ($2+) part of this blog in a couple days, and solicit feedback.

‘In between bookwork, I’ve made some modest progress on Sprout. Not as much as expected, but some. I’ll post a new build sometime later this month, but with more realistic lenses, it’ll probably be several months before the game is finished. It’s a fun job, but it’s also the lowest-priority job.

And in the really-nice-surprise department, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science ordered three copies of the Puzzle of Life (prototype edition) to share with attendees at their summer science teacher training camp. Which is super-exciting! They don’t have specific plans for the puzzles. Rather, part of their goal is to simply introduce teachers to new ideas and new materials, and the Puzzles will be a part of this idea smorgasbord.

Last but not least, we published the full set of Math ALIVE! tutorials to the web here. These are working drafts. Flawed, but also kinda cool (if I do say so myself).

Lastly, as a special thanks to those who have supported us at the $10+/month level during June, we’re sending each of you two pages from the epilogue of Exploring Matter. These pages outline a small easter egg. Each of the first four chapters in the book end with a conversational challenge. If a reader completes this challenge with a perfect score, they are rewarded with a clue – a piece of an apartment number. At the end of the book, if they correctly enter the entire secret apartment number, they get a special (silly) ending. Otherwise, they just get the regular ‘ole ending.

Thank you again for your company and support in this quest. Keep your ears open – more good things to come.

– Tim

Living Solar System – Instructions Online!

Friends, Patrons, and the Naturally Curious,

This weekend, I finished the last (for now) tutorial for the Math Alive! class that I developed and taught for One Spark Academy. There may still be more of these tutorials someday. I dream of developing this into a big and colorful book. And I think it would be fun to do some stretch-and-squash with special relativity. But for now, this is it.

All the tutorials are now free on the web, right here. FREE! Check ‘em out, then give ‘em a whirl!

Note that this is not the whole class, this is just the Scratch-specific portion. In addition to the Scratchwork, we also did a fair number of practice calculations on worksheets, as well as some astronomical running-around in which students took on the role of various objects moving under the influence of gravity.

In the final tutorial, students add some UI features to the simulation – panning, zooming, and speed controls. It’s all done by keyboard, but these features let you focus on whatever you want to focus on. Which is nice.

Here, you can see my model solar system with a terrestrial planet, a rocket-cat, a saturn-like planet, and a comet. If you keep an eye on the two scale variables at the top left, you can see how I tweak the zoom and the speed to accommodate the comet. After the comet makes its first pass by the sun, it swings out on a big slow orbit – so I zoom out the view to keep the comet in sight, then speed up the simulation so that I can watch it orbit in reasonable time.

– Tim

June Updates: Happy Kids, Wyrd Con, and more

Again, a slightly belated update – though mostly for good reasons. May was a very busy month, where my two teaching jobs coincided with curriculum design work and created a real storm of work, work, work, and occasional sleep. With grades all in, I now have time to talk about happenings.

First off, I received a wonderful batch of thank-you letters from the two classrooms that I worked with back in April. In both classrooms, I helped teachers help kids through the Systems and Ecosystems program, where kids learn about *ahem* systems and ecosystems through art, storytelling, and play. Last week, I received a set of thank you letters from these students. One student said, “I liked when we got to do the puzzle with the sun because it was hard.” Which is amazing!

On Wyrd Con: It was a bunch of really thoughtful and friendly people doing all sorts of fun and interesting stuff. Really, a great community. But also rather flaky. Eight people pre-registered for Fire and Flora, but only two people showed (one pre-register, and one walk-in). The guy who had pre-registered had run an event the evening before, and had only 50% of pre-registrations show … so that he had to play multiple roles in his LARP. Overall, I had fun, and I’d love to go again as a player, but I don’t know that I’d want to run an event again.

On Math Alive!: The end result was very positive. I didn’t quite finish writing up all the tutorials (8.5/10), but I got close. All of the students learned a mishmash of programming and math, and found time to add at least a few of their own ideas to their projects. One student specifically noted the ‘to be continued’ at the end of the last page that I had given her, and asked if I could send her the rest over the summer. You bet! So, I’ll plan to finish those last pieces this week, and post the whole bunch to the web.

On the future: This month, I’ll be advancing two big projects: Exploring Matter, and Sprout.

Exploring Matter (tentative title) is an interactive e-book that I’m writing with the NSTA. I’ll post a few bits publicly, but most will be semi-secret, only available on the behind-the-scenes Patreon feed. The plan is to have a first draft by the end of this month, and a completed book within three months. Stay tuned.

Sprout you have heard about before. With the summer pause in teaching duties, I now have time to get more into gamemaking. The animations have taken far, far longer than I expected. But even with my new and more realistic timetable, I expect to have a release candidate by the end of the month.

So, lots of stuff still going on, but I’ll be able to take my work schedule down to 40 hours per week. This will be a welcome relief, allowing me to reconnect with some friends, and get in some good summer hiking.

Lastly, as a special thanks to those who have supported us at the $10/month level during May (and above), we’re sending each of you a first-edition, printed paper version of the outline for Exploring Matter – a teaser of things to come.

Till next time,



Systems, Ecosystems, Math ALIVE!, and WyrdCon

So what’s been going on? Lots of stuff.

During the week of April 17, I partnered with two teachers in North Hollywood to bring the Systems and Ecosystems outreach program to their students. This is the sixth (?) time that I’ve run the full program, and it all worked out remarkably well. Students enjoyed working together to find solutions to The Puzzle of Life. I was particularly impressed with them for their unusually effective teamwork. Students then practiced their ecological modelmaking skills by creating kelp forest Puzzle pieces, and using them to tell the true story of Urchins, Otters, and Hidden Forests. Building on this puzzlecrafting experience, they then went on to each create a new version of The Puzzle of Life based on their own personal priorities.

In this last activity, they were stunningly creative. Starting from a central piece, they worked outwards to build chains of supply and consequence, asking hard and important questions in the process.

  • One student noted that plants ate sunshine, that sunshine came from the sun, that hot gasses made the sun shine, but then got stuck on the question of the origin of those gasses. He asked me, where do these gasses come from? That’s a deep cosmological question to which I have no good answer. Which is awesome!
  • Another student focused on social networks, and created a ‘human’ piece that produced happiness. The happiness then went into a fuzzy sort of open space. Confused, I asked for clarification. This student told me that when one person creates happiness, their happiness flows into the environment around them, and creates a sense of happiness in that place. The good vibe in that place then helps others to be happy. Which is all true, beautiful, and amazing!

In design news, I continued developing and teaching the Math ALIVE! class at One Spark Academy, and finished the writing of fifth, sixth, and seventh tutorials. You may recall that this is a Scratch-based class where students slowly build a working model of a solar system using the math of additive change. If you haven’t yet, you should take a look at this short video, which shows the state of the simulation at the end of the sixth tutorial.

In gamemaking news, I’ve made some small progress on the port of Sprout. If you’re supporting us at the $2 tier or above, you should have received a message with a link to an alpha build. The animations are super-rough, but you can see a glimmering of the brilliant design through the fog of the roughness (design credit goes to Jeff Nusz).

Also in April, to help stay up-to-date with developments in the games-for-good field, and to help support folks who deserve support, I again volunteered as a judge for the Serious Play Awards. This requires spending an hour-or-so exploring each of 8-10 games, then writing an official review with some constructive criticism.

Looking towards the future, I will be spending most of May as an on-the-ground teacher. So there will be little motion on big projects for the next thirty days – with one notable exception: Wyrd Con!

Wyrd Con is a story-oriented gaming con in Costa Mesa California. For the first time ever, Mindful Mammoth will be a part of the con, and run several science/story/game events. Specifically, we’ll be sharing Fire Tag, Fire and Flora, and The Puzzle of Life. If you’re in the area, you should come join us!

None of this would be possible without your help. That North Hollywood school, for example, is full of quality people but very short on funds. When they asked us to visit, I offered the usual deal – and said that we’d be happy to work with them on a pay-what-you-can basis. They said they could pay in lunch, and I happily accepted. Wonderful as that lunch was (pizza, if you’re curious) it doesn’t come anywhere near covering the cost of delivering this program. Which means that, really truly honestly, we couldn’t have done this without your help. Thank you.

As a special thanks to those who have supported us at the $10/month level (and above), we’re sending each of you a first-edition, printed paper version of the sixth Scratch tutorial from Math ALIVE! (cue horror/zombie music).

Till next time,


A Cometary Cat

Yes! This video is exactly what it looks like. It is a cat in a cometary orbit around a star. It is also a major milestone in the Solar System simulation project in the Math ALIVE! (cue zombie music) class that I’ve been designing and teaching for One Spark Academy.

In the first five tutorials students learn about the connections among force, momentum, speed, and position – and write Scratch scripts to describe these connections in a concrete mathematical manner.  In the sixth tutorial, we introduce gravity in the form of a sun that pulls on a cat.

In case you were wondering, this cat is the semi-official mascot of Scratch, and the default appearance for the first Scratch object in every project.

The sun in the center of this sim exerts a gravitational pull on the cat. The gravitational pull is a force that affects the momentum that determines the speed that changes the cat’s position in a fairly authentic manner.

I’m excited.

The next step is to generalize this code. Rather than one cat that is affected by one sun, you’ll have many objects each of which is affected (gravitationally) by every other object on the screen.

I’m excited for this too.

– Tim

The NASW, Math ALIVE!, and Sprout

The NASW, Math ALIVE!, and SproutAs expected, March was a rather full month, with three mindfully notable happenings.

First, the NASW formally accepted my individual membership application (individual memberships are the only type of membership that they offer). This is a wonderfully welcome validation from my peers. It opens the door to useful collaboration with other NASW members, and earns me a right to an entry in the NASW’s Find A Writer database (here). And that database entry could help us to land more contracts.

Next, I’ve begun teaching a really nifty new math class at One Spark Academy, a class very much inspired by Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms. Papert is that rare person who is a true visionary, provably ahead of his time. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, he was frustrated with the way that educators were using new technology (computers) to do the same-old-same-old. He felt that with new tools, we could teach in fundamentally new ways. More specifically, he felt that we could use computers as supportive tools that would enable students to learn math, geometry, and procedurality in a more intuitive way at a younger age.

In my new class, Math ALIVE! (cue horror/zombie music), we combine simple mathematical operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) in complicated ways to create a working model of the solar system based on classical Newtonian mechanics. To do this, we use paper-and-pencil mathematics, mathematical roleplay, and MIT’s Scratch. With the right framing, Scratch is a transformative tool in just the way that Papert described, enabling students to learn advanced mathematics (systems of equations) in a more intuitive way at a younger age. Using Scratch, my students are creating math-powered animations that bring math alive!

FYI, you can find the first three Scratch tutorials here.

If this class goes well (and so far, it seems to be going well) I’d like to eventually write up the class (lectures, games, tutorials) as a maker-oriented book in the style of Sew Electric (and similar books). But that’s a big dream. First things first – make this class a success.

Last but not least, I’ve taken on a new volunteer project. Some of you already heard about this in the last behind-the-scenes Patron update. In short, I’m porting Sprout from Flash to Unity. Sprout is one of my favorite botanical games, and is an important part of our recently published Hands-On Botany lesson plans.

Sprout is written in Flash, and Flash is disappearing from the world, which means that Sprout is also disappearing from the world. In fact, it is already hard to play Sprout in Chrome, though you can still play it just fine in IE (weird). This seemed a terrible shame, so I reached out to Sprout’s creator (Jeff Nusz) and offered my help. He agreed, and we’re currently working on a port, with an optimistic release date of late April, and a more realistic release date of June.

Till next time,


Published: Hands-On Botany

MakeAPlant_Workbook_Example_Page_2Hands-On Botany v1.00 is live and published up on the Internets: free on our website here, or for the low-low-price of $7 on Teachers Pay Teachers (here).


Hands-On Botany is a short class I designed for One Spark Academy, and have since taught several times. In fact, I’m going to teach it again in just a couple weeks. The focus is on the connection between form and function. Across several days of lecture and lab, students learn about three major plant structures – leaves, flowers, and fruits – and the way that the design of these structures affects their function. Everything leads up to a capstone project where students randomly generate an environment (with dice – D&D style) and then design a plant for that environment.  Very STEAM-y.

MakeAPlant_Workbook_Example_Page_4The end result is 12K words of lecture notes and activity instructions, and another 20 pages of worksheets, project booklets, and worked examples.

Having taught this class several times, I thought that writing it up would be rather straightforward. Not so. I designed the class specifically around the known abilities of the audience (OSA students) and the teacher (myself). The result was a pretty cool class, but one that was very idiosyncratic, and which would be hard for others to replicate.

I spent quite a while trying to figure out how to make this material more accessible to other audiences and other teachers, and eventually concluded that I couldn’t change much without sacrificing the sense of playful exploration that was key to the class. I did make a few changes, but for the most part, I addressed the idiosyncrasies with words – attempting to explain the goals and intentions behind various activities so that others would have the conceptual tools necessary to make this work. Hence the 12K words – twice as many as are in the Systems and Ecosystems lesson plan.

ThMakeAPlant_Workbook_Example_Page_5e final product is solid. It’s missing some of the quirkiest quirks, but still contains a fair bit of serious fun. Whew!

Here’s hoping that these ideas get out into the world where they can inform and inspire!

– Tim