Review by Mark Chen, Common Sense Education | Updated August 2015
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Water Bears EDU

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Systems thinking puzzler captures learning but loses engagement

Subjects & skills

  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
Great for:
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Pros: Fun visuals, and works very well with the iOS touch display interface.

Cons: Nothing really new here, and there aren't enough levels outside of the introductory offerings.

Bottom Line: While it'll initially engage the right age group, the lack of levels and limits on creative solutions means teachers should look elsewhere for more engaging puzzles to promote systems thinking.

GlassLab, the publisher, identifies Water Bears EDU as a middle school game. This is a bit of a stretch given middle schoolers' expectations. Other games in that age group, like Civilization, SimCity, or Star Realms, better model the complexity of different interconnected systems and are far more engaging -- although they don't feature the handy teacher dashboard. Sure, teachers would need to scaffold and support their students in one of these more complex games, but, in a connected learning classroom, that support is what teachers do best. For younger students (grades 4-6), however, Water Bears EDU could be a good gateway, especially with follow-up via other activities and lessons.

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Water Bears EDU is a pipe-laying puzzle game a la Pipe Mania from 1989 but updated in 3D for iOS. Playing it is initially very engaging. I found myself enjoying the first few levels, anticipating lots more with increasing difficulty and complexity. I was looking forward to convoluted levels that supported creative ways to arrange pipes of water to the adorable water bear creatures.

However, this didn't quite happen since Water Bears EDU is surprisingly short; by the time users complete introductory levels (of which there were many), they'll discover that they've completed the game. Instead of non-introductory levels that offer new twists and progressions, there’s a series of optional challenge levels that vary widely in difficulty. Unfortunately, these levels' difficulty too often forces players toward one particular solution. This means that players might end up doing brute-force trial-and-error rather than using higher-order thinking and creativity.

Water Bears EDU is a novel effort at helping teachers visualize and assess students' systems thinking development, but falls short at delivering a learning experience on par with what students expect and need. While it’s great that systems thinking and specific science standards are met and tracked through Water Bears EDU, what teachers gain in classroom administration is lost in learning experience, and few teachers will want to make that trade-off. Even with the addition of badges, kids will likely lose interest since the systems presented in the game are simple to the point of being patronizing. There's also an accessibility concern in that later levels add color mixing and extraction to the water, but this feature wouldn't work for kids with red-green color blindness. 

Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

The initially novel concept wears thin, and the levels are caught between being too easy and too prescriptive. 

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Level progression supposedly increases complexity, but it’s too easy during regular levels and inconsistently difficult during the special challenges.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

A teacher’s guide, lesson plan, and puzzle solutions can be found on Water Bears EDU’s website, but there’s nothing for kids to get support on their own.

Common Sense Reviewer
Mark Chen Researcher

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