Developing an Award-Winning Learning Resource: Axel's Chain Reaction

What makes a Golden Lamp-winning product? The best of the best of the REVERE Awards winners, Golden Lamp products are chosen based on excellence in key areas like content & pedagogy (or approach), adaptability, engagement, creativity, usability, and overall experience. In a recent webinar the 2015 winners discussed the challenges and key steps in making a product that truly enhances effective teaching and learning. Below Allison Pomenta, Creator and Executive Producer for Axel's Chain Reaction (2015 Beyond the Classroom winner), discusses how they developed interactive elements crucial to moving the story forward. 

Watch here and continue reading about Axel’s Chain Reaction below.


Allison Pomenta, Creator and Executive Producer: This book app is a result of my passion for children’s literature and games, combined with a personal interest in promoting true inclusion of neurodivergent children, and my background in art education. I’m a firm believer in play-based learning, and I’ve been creating fun educational experiences for children for twenty years –through publications, games, exhibitions, and workshops.

One big idea is that individuals who think differently can offer solutions that other people hadn’t thought of, because their mind perceives, processes, and links ideas differently. In this story, this is tied to the concept of creativity. I believe it’s very important to promote creativity in educational settings, especially nowadays, when economies need originality and lateral thinking to get ahead. [Efforts like project-based learning and the Maker movement] open opportunities not only for kids to learn, but most importantly, for them to feel curiosity, a sense of accomplishment, and self-worth, in areas they hadn’t had a chance to explore during their day-to-day life. […] The importance of STEAM in education is not only that Art lays the foundation for Design Thinking, because it helps kids develop problem-solving skills, but also because it allows open-ended exploration of different possibilities, self-expression, and feeling the intrinsic motivation to develop an idea into an end product that is unexpected.

Axel’s story shows kids who don’t have great manual dexterity that they can create art even if they can’t draw very well (which is a great burden to kids with gross or fine motor skills who have a ton of images in their minds, and would like to express them). Axel not only creates an abstract sculpture, he also creates a big installation. The story’s main character goes through all the phases of creation, including overcoming frustration.  We added an open-ended creation game within the app, to further promote this idea of open exploration, creativity, and unknown results. This is a big difference with most games in educational products, where there are points for achievements, levels, and there is one right answer or one expected ending. I included the hands-on activities with the objective of getting kids off the screen, and into tangible creation, because the tactile and kinesthetic experience with physical objects is still very important for kids developing hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and neuronal connections related to manipulating concrete 3D objects, versus digital-only objects.

The story itself is trying to help neurodivergent children, children with developmental or learning disabilities, to feel appreciated for their talents and abilities, which leads to the feeling of belonging any child needs to feel. This is a notch up from only feeling that your differences are accepted, but you’re not really being included. [For example,] in mainstream classrooms, sometimes the teachers themselves make comments that make these kids feel inadequate or different, sometimes even laying a guilt trip on them for not being able to sit still, for example. So this story brings hope to these kids, especially regarding their need to make friends. But it’s also aimed at making their peers and teachers take another perspective and think past the differences that they see, into the potential, and out-of-the-box thinking that these kids bring to the classroom.

Development Process: From Idea to App

I first started writing the story and coming up with the screen interactions and games that would accompany the storyline in Spring 2011. I started looking for an illustrator shortly after that. Work on concept art and storyboard sketches began by the end of 2011. I had to start from scratch with three consecutive illustrators, before I finally found the wonderful professional who finally made all our illustrations: Monica Armiño, a Spanish artist who in addition to a great talent, had the added advantage of past experience in both children’s print publishing and animation. I recorded the voiceovers and sound effects at a recording studio that summer.

By Summer 2013 I had already found a development studio who wanted to partner with me on this project: Higuera Studios, who created a children’s division especially for this project — Cubic Jigsaw. We began planning work in Fall 2012, and Higuera Studios started their planning and pre-production phases. While Monica began with her first sketches, the heads of programming began laying out the foundations of the analytics for each screen.  As soon as Monica illustrated had all of the pieces for a few of the scenes ready, the programmers brought together illustrations, animation, audio, and text on the Unity engine, to produce full “pages” of the book. This followed the same cycle over and over again for each of the scenes, while I commissioned the photographer and cameraman for the portions that required video and photos. I went through consecutive cycles of Quality Assurance, including beta testers, before the whole book was finished. We finished the whole story as a priority, before going into the Extras sections. 

John Higuera, CEO, Higuera Studios: Often the obstacles were related to the technology we were using to build it, due to the continuous changes it underwent during our whole production process.

Allison Pomenta: There had been a group assigned simultaneously to render the 3D objects for the “Make your own kinetic sculpture” game. Unfortunately, after a few months of building the game, the developers realized that using real physics for flexible objects in that game (strings, rubber bands) was going to make the app crash, and it would end up surpassing the 500 Mb we had set as a maximum goal for the app. So, we decided to launch a first version of the app in September 2013, without the game, while they redid the game from scratch. After several months we tested the new Domino Effect creation game with kids in school and informal settings, and went through several rounds of iterations until the new version of the app was launched in 2014.

John Higuera: One of the challenges for apps is getting visibility. There isn’t a clear dynamic (for educational products) that allows us to say there is a clear path to make it in the current market. It requires the ability to read and react to your audience.

If we receive external funding from a grant, we will make an Android and PC/Mac version of the app [as well as] a Spanish version of the content.

The necessary characteristics of a high quality learning product:

Allison Pomenta: If it’s meant for PreK-12, there needs to be a careful focus on designing the way the content will be conveyed in a manner that will maximize engagement. Also, originality is important. Too many educational products use trite mechanics, which often base learning on rote memorization of facts. Also important is choosing the right aesthetic for the target age group. One of the common pitfalls both in print and digital is the illustrations. 

Learn more about the REVERE Awards. The 2016 competitions are now open for entry.

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