Review by Chad Sansing, Common Sense Education | Updated September 2015

Backyard Engineers

Accessible introduction to engineering could use more depth

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6-9 This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
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Pros: Fun catapulting premise grounds engineering in something relatable.

Cons: Could use more challenge and variety, and the math is too hidden.

Bottom Line: While students are introduced to engineering, machines, and design, levels can be solved with trial and error.

Teachers can use Backyard Engineers as an entertaining way to frame and communicate how engineers solve problems. The extensive Teacher's Guide on the game's website walks teachers through several lessons, within which this game can play a role. As a natural bridge between the digital and physical, these lessons can get students designing and building machines in the real world, as well. In addition, teachers can use project-based learning websites like Make Online and DIY to inspire students' projects. Allow them to choose something they want to do, form project teams, create designs, build projects, and present them, making sure to articulate how their projects connect to science or math concepts they've learned. For a more simple activity, students can also choose famous historical inventions and craft presentations that explain how the inventions function, using appropriate content-specific vocabulary. 

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Backyard Engineers is an online building game that has players design catapults to throw water balloons at targets (aka neighborhood bullies). The game uses a cartoonish style and mostly visual interface to help kids build their catapult, choosing from customizable parts that alter the catapult's operation. For example, catapults with heavy, sturdier frames are more accurate than more mobile, lighter versions. Each catapult component comes with a trade-off, with students having to prioritize among precision, range, damage, and other factors, merging practical and physical aspects of the engineering process. Students decide how many balloons to shoot each time, increasing their chances of a hit. Data is kept on how many balloons were used, how many turns were taken, and more, so placing catapults strategically to create accurate and/or large splash zones is important.

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While Backyard Engineers offers students a glimpse into the iterative, problem-solving aspect of design and engineering, it's a bit too forgiving. The highly visual interface makes it easier to play but also hides the interesting and edifying mathematics underlying what the player is accomplishing. This lack of challenge and complexity makes it too easy to play by trial and error, or to stick successfully with one catapult design throughout the entire game. The game itself lacks any detailed informational text that would give students the science behind their designs. The extension activities on the website can put the lessons from this game in a much greater context, but on its own, Backyard Engineers serves as a small glimpse into the engineering thought process rather than a rigorous dive into the physics behind it.

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Overall Rating
3

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?
3

Kids are meant to feel like engineers, but a too-forgiving, trial-and-error problem-solving approach ends up making solutions feel repetitive rather than inventive.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?
3

Building catapults is a great way to learn about problem-solving and engineering, but the how and why of catapults don't get explained well without the extension materials.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?
4

Support and extension activities are solid, and tutorial levels acclimate the player to the game. An explanation of the science behind students' choices would be a big help.


Common Sense Reviewer
Chad Sansing Classroom teacher

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Featured review by
Denis K. , Other
Other
NYC Department Of Education
New York, NY
3
Think like an Engineer using Simple Machines

Not sure if engineers think this way when it comes to solving puzzles, but it's an engaging activity for students who have trouble conceptualizing and creating things. This game allows them to do just that and even test their machines before letting them work.

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