Ten Free Online Simulation Games for Education

originally posted December 2, 2011, at http://www.ohioregion14.org/perspectives/?p=767. It’s still good, so I’m re-posting it here.

Simulations can be an engaging, effective way to immerse students in a concept. They can also be a good way to spark a student’s interest in a topic by making the factual information to be learned seem “more real”, because it has an immediate purpose – advancing in the game.

Simulations generally require students to learn facts for a purpose beyond simply repeating them on a test. Simulations also often require exercises in decision-making and problem-solving that reach into the upper levels of higher-order thinking skills. Some simulations can be very expensive, though. And just because something is a simulation does not guarantee it will be either educational or engaging!

Here are my ten favorite free online educational simulations!

10) Blood Typing
Why do blood types matter? See what happens when three accident victims come to the emergency room. They all need transfusions, but none of them know their blood type. Can you figure it out in time to save them all?

9) Trade and Economics
Why do some countries specialize in certain goods? Do imports and exports really matter? How do production decisions in one part of the world affect other countries? Explore these questions in a wonderfully developed simulation of the Heckscher-Ohlin trade theory. Playable in minutes, and great for playing numerous times in one sitting. Allows students to adjust their strategy from one game to the next in order to achieve a higher score.

8) Zapitalism
Nice simulation of starting with a small retail store, and taking it to profitability based on the important decisions you make. What should you sell? How high should your prices be? What are the other stores around you selling?

7) Arm Surgery 2
Seriously? Arm surgery? Yep! But don’t worry, the animation is “cartoony” enough that you shouldn’t be causing anyone to faint. And the subject matter is likely to have someone in your class saying “Hey, that happened to me!”

6) Cargo Bridge
Triangles. Leverage. Force. Momentum. Planning and Architecture. Resource management. It’s all part of “Cargo Bridge” (and its expanding variants, like the Armor Games Edition, and Christmas Levels Pack)! Use your knowledge of structures and force to keep advancing through higher and more difficult levels.

5) The River City Project (No longer free)
(Intro) http://muveb.gse.harvard.edu/~muvers/rivercityvideos/River_City_Fall_Large.mov
I’m breaking my own rule here by including a simulation that USED to be free, but is now licensed. In a sense, it was never free… funding used to be covered by a federal grant, but that grant has expired. The fact that the simulation is still available at all is a good thing, because it’s well constructed, and plays very well. Students who do not just rush through the game will be rewarded for their attention to details and recording of interesting facts gathered from interacting with the virtual world and the people in it.

4) GCF Learn Free – ATM
Simulations can be used to place students in situations they never would find themselves in, to give them an idea of what life is like from other perspectives. But sometimes, simulations can be used to give students an idea of what life could be like for them in a year or two, or ten! GCF Learn Free’s ATM Simulation is one of the latter. Using an ATM may be second nature to many people today, but for some students, this is a vital skill they will need in order to function in society. This simulation gives them a safe way to experience using an ATM for themselves. GCF Learn Free simulations include printable worksheets to go along with the online activities.

3) The POD Game
Do your high school students think they’re good in a crisis? Let them find out with this scary simulation, funded by the Center for Disease Control and developed by the Chicago Department of Public Health and CADE. An airplane has released deadly anthrax virus over the city, and you are working in a drug dispensing center’s Point-Of-Dispensing (POD). Take the training, and then see if you have what it takes to take the role of a Medical Screener, Forms Reviewer, or Dispensing in a tense situation.

2) Mission US – For Crown or Colony?
Take up the role of Nat Wheeler, a 14-year-old boy in Boston. The time is the days leading up to the beginning of the Revolutionary War. As Nat, participants make decisions that impact the progression of the game, while learning important facts. Teachers can register an entire class and keep track of their progress through the well-constructed simulation. Don’t miss the fun mini-game “Pennywhistle Hero”!

Two more games have been added to this series.  “Flight to Freedom” has students playing the part of a runaway slave in the time leading up to the US Civil War, and “A Cheyenne Odyssey” puts students in the northern plains in 1866 as part of a Native American tribe!

1) The Oregon Trail
The grandaddy of educational simulations! The one that basically started it all! New versions exist for mobile devices, but they aren’t nearly as heavy on requiring independent thought and planning.
Start in Independence, Missouri, and plan your trip westward to start a new life for you and your family in 1848.
Original edition FREE online
ActiveGS version
Java Version

“Cabin Fever” Arts Festival

Southern State Community College hosted a “Cabin Fever Arts Festival” on its Central Campus in Hillsboro, Ohio, on Saturday, March 15, 2014.

I have to admit, arts and crafts just are not my thing.  I adore the products, I admire the people who produce them, but if I had to make my living that way, the words of Judge Elihu Smails resound in my head; Well, the world needs ditch-diggers, too.

Here are a few of the local artisans who made my day.

Sue and a customer.
Sue Frump (right) speaks with a customer.

1) Sue Frump, Mountain Mist

Sue’s longtime musical collaborator, Virginia “Jinny” Spillman, passed away in January.  Sue had a simple table where she was selling some of the CD’s that she and Jinny made under the name “Mountain Mist“.  All of the proceeds from the day’s sales would go to benefit Hospice services.

I’m always looking for good Christmas music, so “Misty Christmas” really caught my eye.  A couple of the songs feature my friend Ellen Pennington playing recorder and singing.   Sue had some beautiful stories to tell about Jinny and their work together.  Want to hear some of their music?  Check out their “Our Music” page.

Eric carving a large piece.
Eric uses his mallet and chisel on this large piece.

2) Spark!  Creative Artspace

From their promotional material:  “Spark! Creative Artspace is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit creative upstart in southern Ohio.  A historic space is being re-imagined and repurposed as a mixed-use arts center to spark creativity, community, and re-investment in our region.  Our niche is Contemporary Appalachian.  As artists / musicians / performers / creatives, we like to mix it up, color outside the lines, collaborate, improvise, jam, and share what we know with others through workshops, classes, zany events, camps, exhibits, and live performances.”

My friend, Eric, was one of the Spark! representatives.  His talent for carving imaginative figures out of wood is fantastic!

Spark! hosts classes in various types of creative expression.  I hope to attend one soon, when my enthusiasm for the event overcomes the hesitation that comes from my lack of skill!

Handmade mug with handwoven coaster.
Handmade “mug and rug”.

3) Grandpa’s Pottery and Handwoven Wonders

I drink coffee at work, and I have a little collection of mugs I have acquired in various places.  Only a couple are handmade, though.  My latest addition is a beautiful stoneware piece from Grandpa’s Pottery, which I have paired with a “mug rug” from Handwoven Wonders.

The mug is hefty!  The thick walls of the cup don’t let any heat from the liquid through, so I can hold the cup however I like when it is full.  I can’t do that with my thinner, cheaper, mass-produced mugs.  The handle is larger than any other I have, and it has a unique thumb indentation on the top that makes the handle even more comfortable, even on such a heavy mug.  Having Ray Storer’s unmistakable signature on the bottom of the mug makes this mug even more delightful.

The woven “coaster” under the mug is just a small piece from Handwoven Wonders.  I like the intricacy of smaller handwoven pieces, and this one is excellent.  It came with a brightly-colored commercial mug and a bag of peanut M&M’s (one of my favorites!).

4) The Button-Cat

Such a unique idea for these small pieces!  The conversation was certainly not what the artisan was expecting, as I studied some of the small pieces:

Artisan: “Do you like cats?”

Me: “Not at all!  But, I have a stepdaughter who likes cats.”

Artisan: “Uh… oh, I see.”

Me: “This one looks like one of ours, I’ll take this one for her!”

There were two different business cards with two different web addresses on the table.  The cat I purchased appears to have come from “The Button Cattery“, while other items at the booth came from “The Chiffon Cat“.  Both online stores list the same name as owner.

Recorder and autoharp duet.
Celtic selections on the recorder and autoharp.

5) Music

Before I left, I stopped for some music.  Two ladies were playing some celtic-sounding selections in the foyer of the Patriot Center.  After listening to the music for a little while, I noticed they had iPads instead of sheet music.

When they finished one song, I approached them and thanked them for playing.  I asked if I could take a look at their decidedly modern setup for sheet music.  They were more than happy to tell me all about it!

They were using the unrealBook app ($5.99 as of this article) on their iPads to store the volumes of sheet music in their repertoire.  Turning the pages was done effortlessly with a PageFlip Cicada bluetooth foot pedal switch, one for each iPad.  Their fingers never had to leave their instruments as they played.  I find “assistive technology” wherever I go!


Why did I go to an arts festival instead of an electronics expo?  I have no chance of ever doing the things these people do.  As often as I say it, I still need the tangible reminder that it isn’t about the tools, it’s about the end product!  These artisans took pride in using a variety of old-timey and modern-day methods and tools to produce such fabulous items.  And I have a small collection of handmade items to remind me of that fact, and to remind me of this time when I met the people behind the products.

How Not To Implement RtI (Response to Intervention)

A recent tweet of mine got several favorites/retweets.  It was, like many of my tweets, a sudden off-the-cuff remark sparked by something I heard.

not_rti“Tier I – Talk. Tier II – Talk louder. Tier III – ID as special ed. That’s NOT how RtI is supposed to work, folks.”

My suggestions for implementing Response to Intervention in a way that will actually benefit kids:

  • Don’t use RtI as an excuse to homogenize Tier I.  Tier II is not an excuse not to implement universal design in Tier I.  The more kids you let fall into Tier II, the more difficult you are making it.
  • Tier II is not “Tier I again, a little slower and a little louder.”  If Tier I instruction wasn’t sufficient, there should be formative assessment data that shows where the deficiency exists, so that a targeted intervention can be implemented.  Not all kids “didn’t get it” for the same reason, and the same intervention won’t work for all.
  • Tier III is not the “gateway to special ed”.  Just because a student is identified as being in need of Tier III instruction in an RtI model does not mean they have some disability.  It means the attempts at instruction so far have been unsuccessful, and a larger barrier exists that must be addressed.
  • Tier III does not allow you to delay special education referral and identification.  “States and LEAs [Local Educational Agencies] have an obligation to ensure that evaluations of children suspected of having a disability are not delayed or denied because of implementation of an RtI strategy.” (OSEP Memo, 1-21-2011.)  In other words, “Well, we think Johnny might have a disability, but we’re doing RtI with him.  If Johnny gets to Tier III, then we’ll set up an evaluation.” is a violation of Johnny’s civil rights.
  • Response to Intervention isn’t something you only do with your special education or “at-risk” population.
  • Tier III shouldn’t be a final and unchangeable designation for any student.  If a certain student is always in Tier III, there’s a problem somewhere in Tier I and Tier II.

In short, Response to Intervention is not a sorting mechanism, or a panacea for student achievement gaps.  It only works when a teacher uses it as feedback for how well their instruction is doing its job, and changes how they teach based on what helps their students learn best.


Learning: Motivation and Mechanics

A Challenge

My friends do something very important for me.  They make me think.

Beyond that, they challenge me to formalize my thoughts into coherent messages.  This is what happened on Monday, March 10, during the weekly #OHEdChat twitter chat.

Scott Kinkopf asked me to write more about a comment I made.

We were discussing “learning”.  Yes, that’s right, “learning”.  Sean Wheeler (teachinghumans.com) made an excellent observation about learning being sparked by a) utility, b) curiosity, and/or c) whimsy.  My graduate school friends would say that means we learn through what is useful, unexplored, and/or interesting.

I thoroughly agree with that observation, but it does just tell one side of the story.  These sparks can tell us a lot about the motivation to learn, but that is not where the journey ends.  It is not enough to want to learn.  The resources to support learning must be accessible.

“Presuming Competence”

Professor Douglas Biklin won the UNESCO/Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah Prize to promote Quality Education for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities in 2012.  His work focuses on providing equitable access for all students, regardless of labels such as socio-economic status and disability.

Can you explain the concept of “presuming competence” and how it relates to inclusive education?

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan
By Family member of Thaxter P. Spencer, now part of the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. See Press Release [1] for more information. (New England Historic Genealogical Society) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When Anne Sullivan first worked with Helen Keller, she approached her with the presumption that she was competent, that Helen’s problem emanated from her not having an effective means of communication.   Even before Anne began to work with Helen, there was evidence of her desire to communicate—she used pantomime to show her interest in making ice cream or wanting toast with butter.  But it was Anne’s introduction of spelling and words that proved liberating for Helen.The principle of “presuming competence,” is simply to act as Anne Sullivan did.  Assume that a child has intellectual ability, provide opportunities to be exposed to learning, assume the child wants to learn and assert him or herself in the world. To not presume competence is to assume that some individuals cannot learn, develop, or participate in the world.  Presuming competence is nothing less than a Hippocratic oath for educators. It is a framework that says, approach each child as wanting to be fully included, wanting acceptance and appreciation, wanting to learn, wanting to be heard, wanting to contribute.  By presuming competence, educators place the burden on themselves to come up with ever more creative, innovative ways for individuals to learn.  The question is no longer who can be included or who can learn, but how can we achieve inclusive education.  We begin by presuming competence.

interview with Dr. Douglas Biklen

Every educator realizes at some point that it is not enough to merely want all students to learn.  It is likewise not enough to believe that every student wants to learn.  Students must have available the necessary resources, tools, and skills to facilitate the mechanics of learning.

Like Peanut Butter and Jelly

Motivation to learn must be paired with competency in the mechanics of learning.  The student who is competent in the mechanics but has no motivation is bored and disconnected from education.  The student who has the motivation but lacks important skills (e.g., decoding text, comprehending text, organizing thoughts) will become increasingly frustrated, like the fox who found he could not jump high enough to reach the grapes and concludes the grapes are sour anyway.

Problem is, our foxes are being tested on how many grapes they’ve eaten.  And instead of putting the grapes where the fox can get them, we conclude that if the fox were hungry enough, he’d find a way to get the grapes on his own.

Lifelong learners have both a strong motivation to learn and a firm grasp on the mechanics of acquiring and applying new information.  They have both the spark and the fuel that results in a roaring fire for learning.

If we hope to produce lifelong learners, we must attend to both of these essential factors.  We must protect and develop each student’s innate curiosity and desire to learn, and we must foster and support the development of appropriate, practical skills for all students to access the general curriculum.

If the next Helen Keller registered for your class tomorrow, could she learn there?  She has the motivation.  Are you supporting her in developing the mechanics?

Big thanks to Scott Kinkopf, Sean Wheeler, and Mike Thayer for taking me down this road!

#OETCx Encienda

That title makes no sense to most of you.  I’ll parse it out a little.

#OETCx – OETC is the Ohio Educational Technology Conference.  An official “Alt Conference” happens during one day of the event.  This “AltConference” is titled OETCx.

Encienda –  Spanish translation of “Ignite“.  The official description: “Join us for a refreshing twist on the traditional conference session. OETCx participants will offer a series of “lightning presentations.” Each presenter will have 5 minutes to share an idea, broken down into 20 slides, which automatically advance every 15 seconds.”

I had the great privilege of being one of the presenters for this session.  My five-minute presentation was titled “Three Big Fat Lies that Technology Coordinators Tell.”

Central idea: What really matters in educational technology is not whether it helps us get things done easier, quicker, or more efficiently.  What matters is if it is engaging (fun).  That’s when ed tech implementation “sticks”.


“Five Rules of Design Thinking” – Early Childhood Version

On Friday, March 21, 2014, I will be conducting my “Five Rules of Design Thinking to Reach All Students” workshop at Hopewell Center [5350 West New Market Road, Hillsboro, OH].  This one will have a little different twist to it… all of the activities are being geared towards those who work with students Pre-K through 3rd grade!

This workshop is being offered free of charge, but space is limited and pre-registration is required.  There is no charge to attend.

The day will begin with registration from 8:00-8:30, and the workshop will take place from 8:30-3:30.  Lunch will be provided.

Designing Education dot org.Our primary audience is educators in Ohio Region 14 (Adams, Brown, Clinton, Fayette, and Highland Counties).  Registration is available via STARS.  If you have any difficulty with the STARS system, you can call Hopewell Center at 937-393-1904 and ask for “workshop registration”.  They’ll get you lined up!

More information about “Five Rules of Design Thinking to Reach All Students” is available at designingeducation.org.

Reflections on #EdCampCbus 2014

On Saturday, March 1, 2014, I attended my second EdCamp Columbus, at Clark Hall in Gahanna, Ohio.  Clark Hall is a magnificent facility in Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools, and a great example of what a learning space can be when it doesn’t have to be what it’s always been!

The final agenda was full of great sessions and ideas!

I tried to pay special attention to Toby Fischer as the day began.  If #EdCampDubC (10/4/14, at Wilmington College) is going to be a success, I knew I should learn as much as I can about starting ‘the right way’ as possible.  Toby has done a fantastic job getting EdCamp Columbus to where it is today, and he also does a good job of deflecting praise to those who have pitched in lots of support along the way as well.

Storify archive of #edCampCbus tweets from 3/1/14.

The sessions I attended:

Group discussion, collaboration.
“How do we get students to change their mindsets to take on challenges?”

1) “How do we get students to change their mindsets to take on challenges?” – This discussion was a great way to start the day. It combined two themes: student engagement, and student accomplishment.  Sometimes, we can focus on one and lose ground on the other.  This session drew examples from a wide range of grade levels and content areas, but it all pointed to one overarching mission in education – Give students the resources and opportunities they need to become lifelong learners.

2) “Redesigning the School Day: Successes and Lessons Learned” – This was another example of someone who had a question, and simply wanted to gather some minds to hear what others had tried and what they had learned.  Some had come to that session because they had the same question and wanted to hear suggestions.  Others came to the session because they had some successes and were happy to talk about them.  The clear consensus within the room was that there is great value in having time set aside during a routine school day/week for a teacher to do something besides instruction for a classroom of students.  Time for observing peers and meeting as a PLC (Professional Learning Community), whether along common subject or common student population, were identified as extremely useful, and worth making time for within the school day.  This is also the session where Ryan MacRaild threw down the gauntlet about each participant in a PLC having a personal responsibility not to let it become “that kind of meeting” that never accomplishes anything.  At the time it happened, I wasn’t at all sure yet whether that would be a highlight of the day or not.  Stay tuned….

Lunch.  SmashBurger.  My first time ever at one of these.  Props to Mikayla for helping me navigate the choices when I told her I was a “newbie”.  The mushroom swiss burger (with lettuce and tomato) and Smash Fries was fantastic!  And I couldn’t pass up the chance to have a Mello Yello from the fountain!

3) “Resources for Interventions (Special Ed and RTI)” – This session turned into something of a laid-back version of a SmackDown.  Not everyone in the room was an Intervention Specialist, which was a big plus.  Also a big plus, having Bobby Dodd to sit next to during the session, taking pictures of me while I wrote on the whiteboard!  We generated a list of useful tech tools, and described the situations where we had found them to be useful [part 1] [part 2] [part 3].  This is also the session where I got a few glares for saying “You mean you can do something other than put recipes on that?” when someone mentioned the value of Pinterest.  Where was @pporto when I needed her?

(By the way, I do know something about the educational value of Pinterest!  I have some Pinterest boards for my Five Rules of Design Thinking workshop, as well as a few of my own!)

4) “If my class were like a video game…” – This was my contribution to the big board for the day.  I had stumbled across a twitter conversation Friday evening, 2/28/14, on “Power-ups in Education“.  The hashtag was #LevelUpEd.  I found the whole conversation and the analogies it generated more than just interesting.  It was fascinating.  “Gamification” is a big deal in education these days.  The whole reason seems to point back to something teachers have been noticing since the Atari 2600: “The kids will play video games for hours upon hours, but they don’t want to do anything in class.”  I had typed out a few little prompts that I intended to use to poke the conversation along if needed.  I was a little disappointed that Sean Wheeler (in another session) and Ryan Collins (early departure) weren’t going to be around for this conversation, but the session attracted a spectacular group of minds to discuss the issues.  Definitions and analogies for things like “power ups”, “cheat codes”, and “high scores” were tossed back and forth around the room.  Changes in the design of video games over the years (from Space Invaders “three lives and your done” to Mario Brothers “there’s still a score but nobody cares about it” to Minecraft “the objective is whatever you decide it is”) reflect not only the growth in what the technology can do, but also what engages the mind of the participant and gets them to keep trying.  Material generated from this session is taking shape and will (hopefully) go into a teachers activity on the subject of “gamification”.  Just because something makes your classroom feel more like a video game doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  “The Class of 2013 grew up playing video games  and received feedback that was immediate, specific, and brutal – they won or else died at the end of each game.  For them, the purpose of feedback is not to calculate an average or score a final exam, but to inform them about how they can improve on their next attempt to rule the universe.” (“Remaking the Grade, From A to D“, by Doug Reeves, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 18, 2009).

The SmackDown – At the end of the day, everyone gathered where we had started for some answers to the question “What did you learn today that will impact your practice going forward?”  Taking the time to formulate and formalize this into a thirty-second statement is a powerful exercise, and part of what makes this part of the day so important.  My favorite comment during this time was a teacher I recognized from the second session I attended (on Redesigning the School Day) have the boldness to stand up and say there were things that needed to change in his school and in his PLC, and that he is going to be the change he wants to see.

Be the change we want to see.  No matter what we came to learn, that is always the challenge to every one of us when we have the opportunity to learn and grow.


EdCamp Columbus, Saturday 3/1/14

On Saturday, March 1, 2014, I am headed to Gahanna-Lincoln High School’s Clark Hall for EdCamp Columbus!

I went last year and had a fantastic time!  Ready to go back and be with a great group of educators!

I also plan to use some of the time to steal ideas for, and stir up support for, edCampDubC, a new EdCamp on the campus of Wilmington College, October 4, 2014!