The Tip-It Game class activity

Tricia Ferrett
Chemistry, Carleton College
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This activity requires students to play the game Tip-It to learn about some essential aspects about complex system behavior. Student teams make careful observations, which are then compiled through discussion into the first draft of a class list of "essential features of complex systems."

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Undergraduate 200-level science course on abrupt climate change, for non-majors and majors in our environmental studies major.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students need to know very little to engage. They do need to know how to make careful observations, as some of the effects are quite subtle.

How the activity is situated in the course

I do this activity in the first class period to start students thinking about the behavior of complex systems in a hands-on game. We then revisit the class list generated from this game several times throughout the term. The ideas eventually get incorporated, to varying extents, into websites designed over the term by teams of students.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

To get concrete and hands-on experience with ideas that include: tipping points, threshold crossing, regime change, unpredictability and instability near tipping points, stable regimes, small change makes big change, irreversibility (hysteresis), and feedback.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Careful observations of systems behavior.

Other skills goals for this activity

Development of a common language for complex system behavior, plus translation from this language into others specific to a context (climate science, dynamical systems, etc...).

Description of the activity/assignment

On the first day of class, I want to have students directly interact with a complex system, in a hands-on way, as they play and observe the systems' behavior. I ask students to play the Tip-It game in teams of 3-4. They record their observations, and I urge them to look for subtle features as they play one full cycle of the game - until the clown tips off his pedestal. Then I lead a full class discussion with the goal of constructing a class list of "the essential features of complex systems." This list is not judged at this point, but rather serves as a starting point and an anchor for refinement throughout the course.

Determining whether students have met the goals

During the discussion, I have a chance to gather team observations, compare them, and use them to make a class list. I find that if one team has not observed something, another team probably has.

During the activity, I circulate among the teams. If they are not being careful enough about observing subtle features, I will drop a clue about what or how to watch the game. My real-time coaching can nudge them to dig deeper.

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Supporting references/URLs

Tip-It games of various sizes can be purchased as follows:

  • Large game, (modern version), ~ $10-13, Can also be found at other stores like Target.
  • Small game on keychain (modern version). $5. These don't work as well for the in-class activity (too small, hard to set up), but they are cheap enough that each student can have one. 
  • Large game, old versions (first sold in 1965) can usually be found on eBay, but pricier for the vintage version.