The Wolfram|Alpha Blog is now part of the Wolfram Blog. Join us there for the latest on Wolfram|Alpha and other Wolfram offerings »
Richard Clark

The ESL Story Game, Powered by Wolfram|Alpha

October 5, 2012 —
Comments Off

Today is World Teachers’ Day, and our recent blog post about Wolfram|Alpha in the classroom inspired me, so I thought I’d share how I used Wolfram|Alpha when I was an English as a second language (ESL) teacher in Korea.

In fact, I still use it to this day when I tutor ESL students in my free time. For many of my classes, whether the students were five or fifteen, I found that Wolfram|Alpha inspired conversation, helping students to discuss topics and ideas in ways that are largely ignored in most ESL curricula. It also formed the basis for my apt but boringly titled Story Game, which I found was a fantastic way to encourage student participation. Wolfram|Alpha allowed me to express in vivid detail some of the thoughts I wanted to share with my students, and vice versa, all while supplying various charts, graphs, and visualizations to reinforce the language.

The Story Game starts out with a discussion of the weather at present. Since I was in Seoul, let’s do that.

Weather in Seoul

Here’s how it works. You choose something to focus on, like wind speed or humidity, and ask students how they feel about it until someone admits that they do not like the weather for some reason. That person is going on a trip. We’ll type “random city” in Wolfram|Alpha.

Random city

In our case, we got Neuenstein, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, population 6,255 as of 2007. We’ll note for the purposes of our story that the city of Heilbronn, population 121,384, is 17 miles west-southwest of Neuenstein. Nearby features in the same direction include the Neckarwestheim nuclear power site, 22 miles away, and the Triberg Waterfall, 97 miles away.

It’s reasonable to assume that most students not from Germany won’t be experts on the country (and neither am I), so this is a good time to compare Germany and Korea:

Germany, Korea

You can spend a few minutes comparing the geographic and demographic properties of the countries. For example, we can see that Germany and Korea each have a similar coastline length, 1,484 miles and 1,499 miles respectively, despite Germany being ~3.5 times larger than Korea. And the GDP of Germany is, like its geographic size, ~3.5 times larger than Korea’s. We can also see that Germany has roughly double the unemployment rate and, in 2010, negative GDP growth, compared to an enviable 3% growth in Korea.

Then we call on students to create a character. It’s important that everyone contributes. Is our character German or a Korean living in Germany? (Suppose we said German.) Is our character male or female? How old is she? What is her occupation, or is she a student or unemployed? Is she from a large city? What are her hobbies and interests? What is the color of her hair, and how tall is she? How many family members does she have, and what are their ages and genders? What’s an important event in her past? (So long as you can trust the students you call on to not say something inappropriate, go ahead and let them be silly, or make an example up yourself). For the purpose of the story, our character now lives in Neuenstein.

Now we should have two characters, the student and the made-up person. We’ll add our third and final character, the teacher (important for ensuring the following discussions are civil and don’t get out of hand.) Kids love making fun of teachers, and it was my experience that while strict-but-fair is a successful premise for typical lectures, in this case, in order to remove afternoon torpor, I found it quite handy to allow the students to alter my background slightly. Specifically, changing my hobbies or my occupation went over well. (I do not recommend letting them try to change your name or other important features, as your role is to be the game master.)

At this point you can call the student going on the trip and the student playing as the German character to come to the front of the classroom with you, and begin a dialogue. I’ve found it helpful to pretend that you met them both at the nearest airport to the city you’re going to. Don’t worry if it’s a military airport, a private airport, or if you know literally nothing about it. It’ll inspire the students to come up with a fun reason for why they are where they are. The nearest airport to Neuenstein, Schwäbisch Hall Airport, has two runways, with the longest runway being 5,052 feet long.

Guide the characters’ conversation to ensure they reach as many of the background data as possible. For example, after exchanging names, and  how the weather in Neuenstein compares to Seoul at the moment, talk about your interests and previous experiences. Invite the characters to attend one of the nearby locations, like the Neckarwestheim nuclear power station. It’ll be interesting what your students come up with to determine why exactly they’re going there.

Next, call on another student to declare a dramatic interruption, where you deal with the consequences of your actions thus far. In our hypothetical case, I can imagine a student suggesting that security came to deter us from entering the site (we’re probably not licensed engineers with a good reason to be there).

Finally, call on yet another student to narrate the conclusion of your story (or do it yourself if you don’t trust that the content will be appropriate.)

I can say without any hyperbole that my ESL students, children and adults alike, adore the Story Game, which is made possible by Wolfram|Alpha. And you’re sure to have noticed that, me not being a mathematics guy, I focused most of my usage on geography. The Wolfram Geography Course Assistant App is out now, for the iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, and PC. It accomplishes much of what the Story Game is all about. It’s really cool and probably my favorite app that we’ve released so far. You can read our blog post about it here.

If you’re an educator yourself, and you have an interesting story on how you use Wolfram|Alpha in teaching, you might want to consider sending in an entry for our contest (where you can win an iPad). Submissions end October 15.

Not an educator? Feel free to leave some comments in our lovely rectangular box below. I’m personally interested in learning how you use Wolfram|Alpha.