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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

Fire and Flora v14

v14Components-01Fire and Flora is back on the table, now as v14.

After some years on the shelf – years where there was a neverending background backbrain burble of ideas about this game – we decided to try out some pretty major revisions (details in the changelog). Last weekend, we recruited some friends for a playtest, and it turned out surprisingly well. I’d say that the revisions have mostly performed as expected. You now have a much richer and more interesting set of tactical options, though these options come at the cost of a modest increase in complexity and a few new flaws.

Fire and Flora will remain a backseat project, but I still believe strongly in its potential for fun and for good, so we’ll continue to bring it to festivals and classrooms, and we’ll let our backbrains continue to burble. In time, I think we’ll end up with something that is much better than what we last brought to Kickstarter, good enough to launch a second funding campaign, and this time be able to bring it to backers and to stores.

A small big deal

SystemsAndEcosystemsAnnouncement-01 After multiple rounds of testing, revision, and detailed proofreading – we’ve finally published the new Systems and Ecosystems lesson plans. The whole shebang consists of 70+ pages of stories, workbooks, and examples covering oodles of strong, fun, and thought-provoking ideas.

This is a big deal for us. First, it was a heck of a lot of work. More importantly, it’s a really good example of the way that play can be a powerful force for good. For all that games and media are so much in the news, and technology has become a sort of an empty buzzword, there are very few examples of play done well. This is one of those. And we’re very proud of it.

We’ve uploaded the files to the educators section of the Puzzle of Life website (here), where they are available for free. We’ve also uploaded the files to Teachers Pay Teachers (here), where they are available for the gentle price of $10. Note that on the TpT product page, we’ve included a link to the free files on the PoL website. This effectively makes it a pay-what-you can product, giving educators the ability to assess their own finances, and either pay for it on TpT or download it for free from our website.

Check it out, and if you’re a teacher, give it a whirl!

Cool, new, puzzly lessons – Almost here!

firstpage_wbling-01This month’s major task was to create a revised and expanded version of Systems and Ecosystems, a play-based program about interdependence and interconnectedness in ecosystems and everday life. I’m happy to announce that this revised program is almost here!

Just this hour, I’ve finished the major part of the writing. The end result is a lesson plan of 6000+ words, and a quality set of companion workbooks and worksheets.

This evening, I’ll share the updated doc with a small circle of friends and Patrons for a last round of feedback and spellchecking. Later next week, I’ll do a final round of minor fixes, and then publish the final documents to the educators section of the Puzzle of Life website and to our storefront on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Now on Teachers Pay Teachers – us!

nowontpt-01Yes, it’s true. Right here.

Why? Impact, respect, and revenue. Given that lots of people use Teachers Pay Teachers, having our games and lessons on the site means that they’ll get more eyes and more use. That use part is important, as our central goal is always effective positive impact. With a little luck, eyes and use will translate into respect, respect will translate into revenue, and we’ll take another step forward towards financial sustainability (sustainability also being an important ingredient for effective positive impact).

What’s up? Right now, just Fire Tag, which is up for free. Teachers Pay Teachers requires every seller to post at least one free item, and that’s fine by us, as we’d always planned to leave Fire Tag in the public domain. In the next few weeks, we’ll be finishing a major revision of the Systems and Ecosystems lesson plans. When that’s done, we’ll post it to TpT as well, but as a pay-what-you-want product, in keeping with our commitment to equity.

Published: Fire Tag v1.03

firetag_promo_plusplusBased on feedback from IndieCade players and from friendly teacher-collaborators, we’ve made some modest improvements to Fire Tag, and published v1.03 (here).

For the detail oriented, the changelog:

  • Deleted rule #8. Rain/water no longer has any effect on Fire. During play, rainstorms often want to pour water on fire to somehow slow it down, and that does make intuitive sense, but allowing this interaction muddied the ideas within the simulation, making it harder for players to discover the core messages about fire and landscapes. So, Rule #8 is out.
  • Hats now have uniform shape. When each role had a hat of a different shape, it sure looked fun. However, the relatively complex shapes were slow to cut. When cutting by hand, it took a lot of twisting and turning, and when cutting by laser, you had to reset the machine for each different hat type. This was all a big pain in the rear for whoever had the job of doing prep for the game. To make the game more accessible, we’ve simplified the hat shapes, and use the same shape for each hat. Game prep should now be much faster.
  • Hats now have more distinctive colors and designs. The new, simpler shapes made us feel a little sad. So, to make sure that each role had a distinctly different looking hat, we took some time to update the hat-art, and give them more distinctive colors and textures.
  • Revised all the words. In the rules/lessons document, we rewrote the text to be more clear and concise. We then added a bunch of small notes to help future GM’s avoid some potential pitfalls in both gameplay and in post-game discussions.