I tried an interesting experiment in my 9th grade Labscience class last week. I pointed the students at the Angry Physics site (http://ncase.me/birds) and asked them to play with it without talking or collaborating in any way. I told them to "figure out the game". If you haven't played it before, go do that now before you continue.
After about 5-10 minutes, when most of them were starting to think they had it figured out because they had noticed a sine curve forming in the graph, I announced that "Figuring it out means that you can fire and hit the pig every single time without ever missing."
(If you haven't figured it out yet, go back and do that)
So then over the next 10-15 minutes I walked around making sure they weren't talking to each other, and checked their work if they thought they had figured it out. If they hit the pig three times in a row (and I could see that they were correctly using the green line and the red line and the red shading), I put a post-it on their computer so I could see who was finished.
The existence of a badge of pride made the rest of them figure it out pretty quickly. I occasionally gave a hint: "What does the green line mean?"
By the time there were only a couple students left, I announced "Okay, now it is okay to talk with your group about it. Compare notes and find out whether you were using the same strategy or not."
So the experiment was interesting. Nicky Case's idea is a proof-of-concept about Explorable Explanations (ala Bret Victor, that you can learn a system through iterative applications of a See - Model - Predict cycle. And it works. The kids saw the game, played around with it, built a mental model of what was going on, and, with some prodding, came to predict how to control the system perfectly. Some of them learned (and understood) that there are two firing angles that will hit any position that is within the range of the gun. Most of them learned a novel way to represent the relationship between firing angle and range.
But as Case points out in his discussion, they won't understand why, at least not without more work. But that's okay. Use the right tool for the right job, and this tool does have its uses.
I found that, for my students, the most valuable part of the exercise was in talking about the relationship between the real game of Angry Birds, and a tool like this for controlling Angry Birds. I asked them: Would it be useful to have a console like this available while you are playing the real game?
They discussed that the real game is largely based on developing an instinctual "feel" for the range and impact of the different birds, and then following trial and error on each level to figure out the right strategy to bring the pigs down. I pointed out that the real game doesn't provide you with a record of where all your test shots landed -- you can only see a dotted line for your most recent shot. Thus your "memory" in the game is very short. The advantage of a console like Angry Physics is that it gives you a record of every shot you take, and allows you to compare the result of a hypothetical current shot to all of those past shots. It changes bare instinct and trial and error into science -- by recording everything, and then displaying all it in a helpful way.
Combining the Angry Physics display with the real game would eventually remove most of the challenge of the game. Slogging out all the data test shots would be a chore, but future gamers could reap the rewards of that work by firing perfect shots every single time.
What's my takeaway as a science teacher? I want to see (and to build) more tools like this one, and use them to explore the relationship between trial and error and exhaustive data gathering. But the thing I most want to do is to get students to build things like this. I want the student to figure out what data to record and how to display it to aid their own understanding and to make a useful tool for themselves. I think that's potentially the most valuable application of this idea, and I'm really grateful to Case for having built it. It's providing lots for me to chew on.