My latest classroom board game project - Part 1

A traditional Battleship game.

Whilst perusing social media a few months ago, I came across a person who had taken the game Battleship and grafted a periodic table of the elements across it. The rationale behind this move was that by calling out elements on the periodic table as you play the game, students would learn the periodic table. The person who designed this game was well meaning, but clearly not a science educator.

I am. I teach my students about the history, meaning, and uses of the periodic table. The periodic table is not just a collection of chemical symbols and numbers. There is a reason why it isn’t just one long list. The periodic table of the elements is arranged so as to show off the periodicity or trends within groups of elements. Different elements, based upon their electronegativity, electron orbitals, and ionization energy, behave similarly when they have these things in common.

So, Periodic Table Battleship, regrettably, misses the point. Any game that is intended to teach students how the periodic table works needs to focus on the central character and theme of the periodic table. It needs to focus on what elements have in common with each other within a group. This got me thinking. What would my periodic table game look like? Could I put my money where my mouth is?

Periodic Table of Elements.The classic Periodic Table of Elements.

I set out to make a periodic table game that would be suitable for teaching the periodic table as we do in an introductory high school chemistry course. In the past this had been done with notes, so there was clear room for improvement here. My goals were as follows:

  1. Make a game that focused on what the periodic table is all about
  2. Make it quick and easy to learn
  3. Do it without too much material building

After all, we were in the middle of a school year. I also had a deadline in that I wanted to debut it this school year.

The first thing that came to mind is that I have decks of element “fact” cards that I had been using the last few years. The deck is called The Photographic Card Deck of the Elements. It was designed by Theo Gray, a writer and chemist who has amassed a personal collection of nearly every chemical element. Photographs of his actual collection are featured in the card deck. I wondered: Is there a way that I could use this photographic card deck as a basis for a periodic table game?

Dr. Theo Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research.

I started by looking back at the deck itself and immediately noticed that Dr. Gray had smartly color-coded all elements in specific categories with like colors. All of the alkali metals are the same color, the non-metals are the same color, etc. Just like the suits in a standard card deck, this could serve as my key feature for Periodic Table Rummy. Rummy has a large number of variants. A popular one is matching sequential cards or like suit. You then lay these cards down in front of you, “banking” them, until their hand is fully discarded this way. Each turn, you can draw a card from the top of the deck or the discard pile. I could use these basic game mechanics as a way to help my students see common trends within groups of the periodic table.

I decided that the basic game needed to be supplemented with added information about each group on the periodic table. These “fact sheets” would highlight where to find that group of elements on the periodic table, as well as what the elements in that group have in common. This critical attribute of the periodic table is what the game needed to be about and what would make it a standards-focused educational game.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article in which I detail the rules of Periodic Table Rummy!

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