Meaningful Play 2022 at Michigan State University

Session Information

TitleA Philosophical View of Meaningful Play: Exemplified in Two Evolution Education Apps
Presenter(s)Robert Pennock
TimeThursday, October 13, 10:30a-11:30a
LocationMSU Union Ballroom
DescriptionI present a philosophical account of meaningful play in the context of scientific research and STEM education about evolution and the nature of science, exemplifying the approach in educational apps, especially Avida-ED and Salmon Run. I argue that the meaningfulness of a vocational practice arises in relationship to its constitutive purpose and virtues. Play provides a way to develop such virtues through mimicry and practice of useful habits. In virtue-theoretic terms, meaningful play is thus a possible pathway towards excellence. In science, it is one expression of curiosity. In our national survey of exemplary scientists, scientists sometimes describe themselves as being like children and express the joy of research by speaking of "playing around in the lab." This sort of play is exploratory, motivated by the desire to discover the natural world. If science involves this kind of mindset, then science education ought to as well. Avida-ED is an artificial life app based on a research platform but developed with an interface that allows it to serve as an evolutionary sandbox for just this purpose; it is an environment where users can explore and test the workings of Darwin's Law. Developed for undergraduate-level courses, it is used in over 55 countries around the world. I'll show the new version 4. Digital evolution of A-lifeforms in Avida-ED is not at all like what gamers typically think of. Digital evolution systems implement the Darwinian mechanism so that the code itself evolves by natural selection as organisms interact with each other in their digital environment. This open-ended model allows users to "play around" with evolution in the same way that scientific researchers do, satisfying their curiosity about the world by performing experiments and observing what happens. Salmon Run, which is being developed for middle and high school, has similar goals but is explicitly designed so it can be played as a video game. Implementing real evolution into game play without inadvertently introducing unscientific notions is an interesting challenge for game design, and I'll describe how our prototype solves this problem.

Robert Pennock is University Distinguished Professor at MSU where he is on the faculty of Lyman Briggs College, the Departments of Philosophy and Computer Science & Engineering, and the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior program. His interdisciplinary philosophy of science work aims to help improve public understanding of science, to foster science ethics, and to advance STEM education nationally. The lead of the Avida-ED and Salmon Run projects, he has been developing educational software for over fifteen years. In 2017, his Avida-ED project won the International Society for Artificial Life Education & Outreach Award. Pennock is Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer, and a National Associate of the National Academies of Science and has received numerous awards, including the National Center for Science Education's Friend of Darwin Award. The author of over a hundred articles in philosophy, science, and education, his latest book is An Instinct for Truth: Curiosity and the Moral Character of Science.

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