Life stages of a butterfly shown on a leaf

Benjamin Jee awarded NSF grant to develop brain-boosting games for kids

October 4, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

A new way for parents and teachers to help kids get interested in science may soon be in the cards.

Benjamin D. Jee, associate professor of psychology, has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant, which will be used to develop and test card games that aim to promote biological thinking and reasoning in young children.

The $2.4 million four-year grant involves a collaboration between Dr. Jee and researchers at the University of Rochester, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the College of the Holy Cross, as well as Worcester’s EcoTarium.

“Our goal is to develop and test simple card games that will get children and parents thinking about biological concepts, like life cycles,” Dr. Jee said. “We will be conducting our work in places that families go to play and learn, including the EcoTarium.”

The games are based on established card games like War and Uno, but with the suits and numbers replaced with different animal and insect species at varying life stages. The goal is to get children to think about scientifically relevant relationships, including the variability within species and the ways that organisms change over their lifespans.

Life cycle of a butterfly

Life stages of a butterfly

Dr. Jee gave an example based on the Uno game. “There’s a card that’s facing up, and if it’s your turn, you have to match it in terms of its color or its number,” he said. “There are various other rules. It can get pretty complex and idiosyncratic, but basically, it’s a game where you’re thinking about the relationship between your cards and what’s facing up, and that relational thinking process is what we want kids to engage in when the cards show biological organisms.”

The grant will support ongoing work that began in 2022. Earlier versions of the games have been tested in museums and were found to be enjoyable and engaging for both children and adults. The researchers are conducting further studies to determine the most effective game structures and materials for children of different ages and backgrounds.

“From what we’ve seen so far, children and adults are enjoying the games quite a lot, and we are observing interesting discussions about the scientific concepts that we think are important,” Dr. Jee said. “We’re at the early stages, but it’s very encouraging that these games are enjoyable, and people seem to be having fun with them even in a museum where there’s a lot of other fun stuff going on.”

Head and shoulders portrait of Benjamin Jee

Dr. Benjamin Jee

The games will be geared to different age levels, including preschool, a critical learning stage. Studies have been done on what predicts children’s performance through the school years and one big factor is what they know about science as they enter school, Dr. Jee said. 

“It’s kind of startling, but the knowledge that kids have before they’re even taught in the classroom is a big predictor of where they end up eight years later,” he said. “So, we have these sorts of activities that engage preschool children in scientific thinking and encourage them to pay attention to the natural world and notice patterns that are really relevant to understanding how things work, and that hopefully will give a lot of kids a leg up and increase their ability to succeed in school.”

The researchers are conducting laboratory- and museum-based studies to explore the impact of the games on parent-child interactions and are also considering the potential for classroom use. Dr. Jee emphasized the importance of this kind of rigorous research to develop effective educational materials for young children.

“Many products on the market are not based on solid scientific evidence and may exploit parents’ desires to nurture their children’s cognitive development,” he said. “By rigorously developing and testing these games, we hope to provide reliable and credible information to parents and educators.”

The games are designed to be used in informal settings to make learning science more engaging and fun for children, potentially increasing their interest in and understanding of scientific concepts. “The ultimate aim is to get young children to appreciate important patterns of biological variability,” Dr. Jee said. “Play could be a powerful catalyst for this learning.”

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