No Lab Coat Required

The two mechanical and chemical engineering programs reviewed this month-The Incredible Machine: Even More Contraptions from Sierra and Chemicus from Viva Media/Tivola-combine high-end computer graphics with learning activities that are interactive, intriguing, and a whole lot of fun.

Even the driest scientific principles prove compelling to students when presented within the richly rendered computer environments of these unique problem-solving games. And although these programs are not intended as a formal introduction to the core science curriculum, they should serve well as a complement to middle and high school physics and chemistry classes.

The Incredible Machine: Even More Contraptions (Sierra)

The latest in Sierra's Incredible Machine series, Even More Contraptions provides a new set of Rube Goldberg-style puzzles that challenge kids' engineering skills. Players take on the role of inventors out to earn a degree in "Contraptology" by solving unique puzzles. Each puzzle presents the user with a number of parts and dictates a simple task, such as lighting a lamp, shooting off a series of strategically placed rockets, or getting a number of bouncing balls into the same box. Students must use the given materials, which might include such items as tipsy-trailers, ropes, or pulleys, to construct a simple machine that achieves the goal. Because many of the puzzles have multiple possible solutions, ingenuity and creativity are encouraged.

An optional tutorial shows the process for creating successful contraptions and helps players develop the skills to move on through four levels of play, from easy to expert. For example, in the tutorial Aladdin's Fire, players are shown how to light two different Aladdin's lamps using

a ball, flashlight, magnifying glass, ramp, candle, and tower.

Once students have completed a puzzle, the "Professor" narrator congratulates them, and they are rewarded with a round of applause. Additional options include re-do, save, and activity tracking.

As players become more comfortable with the game, they can design and conduct their own thought experiments by programming certain parts to behave contrary to known laws of physics. Players can also alter gravity and change air pressure to simulate conditions in outer space.

While the sounds and colors of Even More Contraptions are geared toward an elementary school audience, the unique challenges and opportunity for exploration make the game challenging for middle and even high school students.

Chemicus: Journey to the Other Side (Viva Media/Tivola)

In this intriguing, Myst-style role-playing game-the sequel to Tivola's Physicus-a chemistry buff named Richard has been wrongly accused of taking the molecule that provides the parallel world of Chemicus with energy. Without an energy source, the infrastructure of Chemicus is breaking down, and its inhabitants are holding Richard hostage until players can fix the damage.

As in any role-playing game, players are asked to explore Chemicus, finding and using certain tools to restore order in the realm. For example, players collect "knowledge chips," which cover such topics as substances and their properties, to use as references.

Success in this game depends on getting the city's energy systems back up and running, fixing broken machinery, and manufacturing substances needed for survival of the realm. To do this, players must use the information on the knowledge chips, create maps of Chemicus, collect and manipulate objects, and apply their knowledge of chemistry to the production of new substances.

As they solve puzzles successfully, students are rewarded with animations or with a video communication from Richard.

Though the plot is a bit muddled at times, the strength of Chemicus lies in its ingenious chemistry-oriented puzzles. Whether students are fixing a fuel cell, flying a balloon, or decalcifying a waterspout with lemon juice, all forward progress in the game revolves around collecting items and using knowledge of chemistry principles to fix or make new products. Combined with beautifully rendered 3-D scenes, these challenges provide a fascinating exploration of chemistry in action as students work to stabilize Chemicus and free Richard.

Mike Brown is an educator and the director of the Coastal Studies and Technology Center at Seaside High School, Seaside, Ore.

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Product The Incredible Machine: Even More Contraptions Chemicus: Journey to the Other Side Publisher Sierra Entertainment
(425) 649-9800 Viva Media/Tivola
(212) 431-4420 Platform Mac/Win CD Mac/Win CD Price $9.98 $19.99; lab packs available Grade Level 3-12 7-12; younger with adult help Emphasis Physics, mechanics, problem solving Chemistry, problem solving Features - Over 250 unique engineering puzzles
- 4 levels of play
- Two-player mode
- Multi-player tracking
- 100 different colored parts
- Palm OS version available -3-D role-playing adventure
- Embedded video scenes
- Thorough chemical database Strengths - Full tutorial and hints for beginners
- Audio and text help
- Ability to create and share puzzles
- Allows students to conduct through experiments
- Multiple solutions encourage creativity - Richly rendered scenery and animations
- Useful database of chemistry information
- Demonstrates chemistry principles in action
- Engaging format encourages creative problem solving Limitations - Music and graphics more suitable to elementary audiences - Navigation isn't always clear
- Some elements of the user interface are confusing
- Saving games is not intuitive Support Materials - Excellent help section included on CD
- Tutorial and hints - Step-by-step solution is included on CD Bottom Line A great supplmentary resource for a simple machine or engineering unit A graphically engaging role-playing game for reinforcement of chemistry concepts

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Read other articles from the August Issue