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Turing Tumble Game Teaches Computational Thinking

Paul ’03 and Alyssa Boswell ’03, S’10 with their Kickstarter-funded game, Turing Tumble.

“Computers are so pervasive these days,” says Paul Boswell ’03.

He should know, because the self-described, lifelong computer nerd has built a career around them. Even as a chemistry and biochemistry/molecular biology double major at Bethel, Boswell gravitated toward the electrical, computational side of research. He worked closely with Department Chair Rollin King, his adviser Ken Rohly, and then-professor Jack Waas to do undergraduate research on the properties of gases using Geiger counters.

“At Bethel, professors encourage you to just try things…to take initiative, to do things independently,” Boswell says of his time at Bethel. Not only did these collaborative experiences result in Boswell building—and maintaining—close relationships with his chemistry professors, but he adds that, “having those experiences and going to Bethel for undergrad made a huge difference in getting into graduate school.”

Boswell earned his Master of Science and Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Minnesota, where, after being awarded a $1.6 million post-doctoral research grant from the National Institute of Health, he ran a research group in the horticultural science department and taught chemistry courses.

His wife, Alyssa (Fredman) ’03 S’10 has a complementary set of skills. She was a K-12 Spanish education and elementary education double major, has a Master of Christian Education from Bethel Seminary, and has both taught and worked in children’s ministry. They have some in-home inspiration, too, from their kids Oliver (8), Finley (6), and Henry (3). They have constant exposure to how kids learn, and the way they see and understand—or at times, completely overlook—the technology that’s all around them.

Inspired by the Digi-Comp II, Robot Turtles, Codemasters, and other games that have taught elements of computer-like thinking to kids through the years, Paul dreamed up a tabletop game where players build mechanical “computers” to solve logic puzzles and get marbles to fall in a certain way. Players attach colorful, 3-D parts called ramps, crossovers, bits, interceptors, gear bits, and gears that visualize the basic functions of a computer and help achieve a goal.

The puzzles—51 of them—take increasingly greater skill to solve, and “by the end, they get extremely difficult,” Boswell says. He explains that concepts build on each other and solutions become more and more complex as the game progresses, so adults and experienced coders can have just as much fun with the Turing Tumble as beginner 8-year-olds.

While it’s lighthearted and kid-friendly, the game seeks to address a larger trend: most people, especially kids, use and interact with computers all day, every day, but don’t understand how they work. Without the barrier of coding languages—and no screen at all—the Turing Tumble eliminates fear and introduces computer-like thinking to even the youngest and most technophobic players.

“It's fun, addicting, easy-to-learn, and while you're playing, you discover how computers work,” summarizes the Kickstarter page that was launched to help fund production of the game, which Boswell has spent the last two years developing. The Kickstarter campaign features a promotional video explaining the concept, alongside tiered options for backing the project, with a goal of raising $48,000. As of the publishing of this article, the project had raised over $275,000 from nearly 3,000 backers and still had 9 days to go before the deadline. The Boswells have been completely blown away by the positive response to the project, but hope the response is indicative of the game meeting a real need in preparing an up-and-coming generation for tomorrow’s jobs.

“I'm all about teaching kids to code. When I was a professor at the University of Minnesota, I saw how valuable it is for all students to be coders. The problem is that they all treat computers like abstract, black boxes. They overlook the fundamental, most amazing concept: how simple switches, connected together in clever ways, can do incredibly smart things,” Boswell writes. “Kids learn best when they use their senses to explore concepts. Turing Tumble is the only game that lets kids see and feel how computers work. The logic isn’t hidden inside a computer chip—it’s all right there in front of them. It builds logic and critical thinking skills, fundamental coding concepts, and grounds their understanding of computers.”

Chemistry Professor and Department Chair Rollin King says the invention is an inspired way to help children and chemists alike gain a better understanding of computer interfaces. “We are all so used to advanced electronic devices that amaze us; we use phrases like, ‘it’s thinking,’ when we have no idea what the device is doing. Turing Tumble demonstrates—in a vivid way—computing from the bottom up.”

Boswell says that educators have been among the game’s biggest proponents so far, and that computational thinking is a core element in many classrooms and curricula these days. He hopes that by introducing basic computational ideas, using tactile, colorful objects, and shedding some of the mystery around how computers work, kids will feel empowered to understand how other things around them work, too.

Bethel’s resident computational thinkers were some of Boswell’s earliest research partners, so they’re thrilled about the project’s success and excited to bring it home to their own families.

“Fundamentally, all computers do is set bits and move bits according to logic,” King says. “Numerical scientists—like me!—are very excited to share this game with our kids. Paul and Alyssa have obviously poured themselves into this project, and it is delightful to see the rapidly growing interest.”

After the Kickstarter is complete, the Boswells will go into production mode, working with injection molding and packaging companies to create the actual Turing Tumble product and fulfill initial orders. So far, the project has been featured by Popular MechanicsBoing BoingTechCrunch, The Mac ObserverEngaged Family Gaming, and Laughing Squid.

Want to find out more? Explore Bethel’s chemistry and computer science programs, or check out the Turing Tumble website.

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