The power of play

A ‘killer app’ for teaching math, developed by an HCII Ph.D. student, draws heavily on large-scale data analysis

Derek Lomas (Kris Krug photo via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Walking into the offices of Carnegie Mellon’s Project Olympus on Henry Street—a long, narrow brick building that once stabled Oakland’s many horses—feels like walking into the proverbial “garage” of one of the Silicon Valley’s great startup companies. (Think of Hewlett and Packard, or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.)

Strewn across a dozen or so folding tables are cups of cold coffee and half-eaten lunches. Instead of huddling over drawing boards, though, these emerging entrepreneurs are pecking away on laptops while 3-D printers output prototypes of their ideas. They are hard at work on products and services that may one day change our lives.

Project Olympus, now part of CMU’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, supports faculty and students during the early stages of their entrepreneurial endeavors. One of those students was Derek Lomas, who is a Ph.D. candidate in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. Lomas is studying how people learn while playing online educational games. In December 2011, he and Kishan Patel, then a CMU intern scholar, cofounded Playpower Labs, an educational research initiative that develops Web and mobile applications for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Project Olympus supported their work by providing coaching, connections to experts in their fields, and business advice.

“We’re studying how to maximize player learning and engagement in educational games,” says Patel, who holds a degree in information and communications technology from Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in India. For two summers, he worked alongside Lomas and Ken Koedinger, one of Lomas’ advisors and a professor in the HCII. Koedinger also is co-director of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center.

Playpower’s “killer app” is Fraction Planet, a suite of educational software that supplements traditional elementary school math curricula and provides instruction and assessment in more than 50 of the “Common Core” standards—the set of interstate educational benchmarks coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. In a Playpower promotion video, Lomas describes Fraction Planet as “Angry Birds meets the Common Core.”

The games—Battleship Numberline, Bubble Pop and Party Time—are self-paced and progress from easy to difficult; they are designed to address concerns about math proficiency and help prepare students for careers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Fraction Planet is available now through a beta Web site ( and is scheduled for a full launch soon.

“Elementary students have very strong misconceptions about fractions, which makes it difficult for them to learn algebra in high school and go on to pursue STEM education,” says Lomas, who earned a master’s degree in visual arts from University of California at San Diego, and a bachelor’s in cognitive science from Yale University. “Fifty percent of eighth graders can’t order three fractions from least to greatest,” he says, citing a 2004 National Assessment of Education Progress study.

One thing that makes Lomas’ scholarship unique is that “his research is embedded in the games,” Koedinger says. “Derek can make infinitely subtle changes to these games—like whether there are four or five fractions involved, or how the players are rewarded. He’s looking hard at student motivation and is making changes (to the games) based on important educational and psychological hypotheses.”

The scale at which he conducts his research is also innovative. Kit Needham, entrepreneur-in-residence at Project Olympus, says that unlike many makers of educational games, who base their claims on “gut feelings,” Lomas has the data to prove that children do learn using Playpower’s software.

“We recently ran research that analyzed 14,000 experimental conditions,” Lomas says. “This scale allows us to systematically break down data and see how motivation occurs.”

“This blows my mind,” Koedinger says. “Derek’s large-scale data collection is a huge advantage in understanding how students learn. His research is cutting-edge and quite remarkable.”

Lomas also works closely with the Pittsburgh area’s Propel charter schools, where he conducts randomized control trials. “I can talk with the teachers and observe students playing the games. It also allows me to conduct controlled pre- and post-testing of the students.”

Game design is instrumental in the success of Fraction Planet. By adjusting the games’ graphics—the color or size of the battleship, how points are scored, or the frequency of pop-ups with positive messaging—Lomas and his team can analyze how long participants play, at what point in each game they stop and how well they perform.

“The use of design as a factor in educational games is fairly new and not a lot of research has been done as to its efficacy,” says Jodi Forlizzi, Lomas’ other advisor and an associate professor in CMU’s HCII and the School of Design. One of the findings discussed in the paper “Optimizing Challenge in an Educational Game Using Large-Scale Design Experiments,” published in the journal ACM CHI, was surprising, Lomas says. “We found that the most engaging design conditions produced the slowest rates of learning.”

Forlizzi adds that Lomas is deeply devoted to understanding how children learn. “What touches me is that Derek is very committed towards developing high-quality educational games,” she says. “I think he is motivated, in part, by his own two children. He has such a passion for what he is doing.” Lomas is the father of two, Milo, 4, and Mia, 1.  

Fraction Planet’s success is attracting the attention of others. Playpower has received numerous awards, including the CMU McGinnis Venture Competition award; the National STEM Video Game Challenge award, announced by President Obama and presented by his chief technology officer; and the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Award. It has received funding from The Grable Foundation, the Pittsburgh Sprout Fund, and a Project Olympus Spark Grant, among others.

But it’s being accepted into the TechStars deep-immersion mentorship program that Lomas hopes will propel Fraction Planet into the educational marketplace. Lomas and Patel spent their summer in New York City along with nine other education startups for TechStars, which provides seed funding to companies from more than 75 top venture capital firms and angel investors. Only 1 percent of companies who apply to TechStars are accepted into the program, according to its Web site, and of the 223 startups that have completed it since 2007, 90 percent remain active or have been acquired by other companies.

“Getting basic research into the marketplace is difficult,” admits Lenore Blum, distinguished career professor of computer science at CMU and founding director of Project Olympus. “What Derek has going for him is extremely high-quality material that has been tested and evaluated.”

“Students come to Project Olympus with ideas ranging from a sketch on a napkin to actual prototypes,” Needham says. There they can obtain start-up advice, business strategy planning, and connections to industry experts, advisors, and the business community. “Some are here with the intention of making money,” says Needham, “but Derek has a product that he also hopes will make a difference.”

A native of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Lomas said that it was Carnegie Mellon’s support of social entrepreneurship that prompted him to pursue his doctoral degree at CMU. “I liked their global social impact mindset.”

—Linda K. Schmitmeyer is a Butler County, Pa., based freelance writer and editor.


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