Imagination and STEM education: Playing Little Alchemy

This summer I have been working with KLRU-Austin PBS in a collaborative project with 18 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) summer camps. Part of my job as a project manager has involved the preparation of learning resources that can be used by teachers, facilitators, and students that participate in the camps around the Austin metropolitan area and Central Texas. From tablets and laptops to videos and apps, I have been discovering, curating, and setting-up educational tools and materials that can support STEM education. Among the variety of resources I have encountered and implemented, a curious app named Little Alchemy has called my attention not only because its popularity among the students that participate in the program but also because its mechanics, goals, and interface make it very innovative.
Little Alchemy is a game about mixing and discovering the elements of our world. It is web-based and also runs in mobile devices and most OSs. The game interface and mechanics are simple and minimalistic. There is an open canvas or workspace for mixing different elements on the left side of the screen. The elements, displayed as single icons, appear at the right side of the screen, organized alphabetically as in a list. On the workspace, the player can combine different elements by dragging them and place them one in the top of another. At the beginning, the player starts with the basic four elements: water, earth, air, and fire, and she/he needs to intuitively starts trying different combinations. For instance, fire + earth creates lava, water + earth makes mud, and water + fire creates steam. When the right elements are mixed, a new element is created and added to the list on the right side of the screen so it can be used for new combinations. There are more than 500 elements that the player can create as he tries the different mixes, using her/his imagination and a logical reasoning. Although some combinations are also based in fantasy, most of the elements are created by following a scientific reasoning.

The simplicity of the gameplay is one of the most appealing aspects of Little Alchemy. Mixing elements and experimenting with the creation of new things is something that is fun and challenging. Even if the making of new elements is just based on icons and words, experiencing it is something that triggers imagination and sparks curiosity. Transformations, remixes, and permutations are at basis of creative thinking and invention. As the player creates more elements and tries new combinations, she/he is also engaged in a process of exploration and discovery. In a certain way, even if none of icons in the game move, or there are not animation effects when the new elements are formed, the player still experience some movement in his mind when new elements are made. This happens not only because the collection of elements grows, but also because there is a subtle story of exploration and the making of a world that is told as the player create new items and adds them to its collection.

It is precisely the subtle narrative about discovering/exploring/making of a world, in constant trasformation, what opens opportunities for learning and thinking. Although I have not heard yet from any teacher using the game in the classroom, the students who have been playing it during the free time have indeed been talking to each other about what they have discovered and their combinations. Because the game allows the players to experience very unique pathways of discovery, it is rare to see two players creating the elements in the same order. Each player  follows its own pathway of discovery. Teachers could take advantage of the possibilities that Little Alchemy offers in terms of learning. I think that after allowing youths to play with the game, teachers can organize discussion groups to talk about what every student discovered, the logic behind the creation of an element, and the challenges of creating certain items. In relation to STEM, there are opportunities to talk about the scientific process of discovery, especially discussing particular technologies and periods of time (e.g. wheel, computer, hammer, etc) and what they have enabled humans to make. There are also opportunities to create activities that are more storytelling oriented, and where students can write about their own trajectories of discovery in the game. This stories can encourage students to think about science and technology in an imaginative way, and to recognize the sort of creative process that is at the core of science. Given the multiplicity of combinations and the abstract nature of some of the elements that could be created, the game can also be used for discussing complex concepts and emotions such as time and love. It is precisely the possibility of mixing and remixing elements of all kinds, in a simple but at the same time complex way, what makes Little Alchemy a fun and smart game. Playing it and talking about it, can support STEM education programs and learning activities, and particularly foster curiosity, discovery, and imagination.

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