Using Geckoman in the Classroom

Games can be an inherent motivator for learning. Through trial-and-error and immediate feedback from the game, a player can recognize problems and look for solutions. Nanotechnology is an enabling technology with very few, but significant corollary events in our past.  This means that nanotechnology will transform  medicine,  energy storage, transmission and generation, introduce new materials, enhance the field of genetics and biotechnology, and, hence, will have a large impact upon our lives.  Nanotechnology is in its infancy.  As the depth and breadth of this scientific field of knowledge increases, the quality of life for us and other living things will change.  Nanotechnology is poised to change much of what we know about the world in the next sixty to one hundred years!

What is Geckoman? 

“GeckoMan” teaches, through game play, the principles of nanoscale force interactions. The goal is a game that produces an “intuitive” understanding of these otherwise non-intuitive forces.

Game-environment and content specific information

World 1 consists of nine levels in a setting of a Wild West town that is suspended, upside down, on the ceiling of Harold’s lab. The player (Harold) advances through the levels by entering the “gold mines” at the end of each level. The main concept of World 1 is focused on van der Waals forces that allow nanoscale Harold to “defy gravity” and walk on the ceiling. If Harold’s weight (from picking up too many items, for example) exceeds his adhesive force, it will cause him to fall from the ceiling and lose a “life”.  As with most action videogames, players are given multiple lives so that they can learn through trial and error; they can earn additional “lives” to prolong the game through various bonuses, which are designed to reward learning.


World 1 also introduces the Nanoids, the tiny alien race who want to steal Harold’s shrinking machine so that they can bring themselves to the macroscale. The Nanoids attack Harold by sticking nanoparticles to him and thus, increase his weight. However, Harold can fight back using the same technique and slingshot gold nanoparticles at the Nanoids in order to increase their weight. In World 1, the Nanoid characters all have an “adhesion” meter over their heads; when the adhesion drops to zero, the Nanoid falls off the ceiling. Harold (the player) has two meters: weight and adhesion. The meters visually emphasize when Harold’s weight exceeds his adhesion, gravity is the dominant force, causing Harold to plummet to the floor.


In World 1, players also learn about the effects of surface area on adhesion and can crawl to increase contact with the surface and thus, increase adhesion. In addition, Harold can take advantage of the water “power-up” item, which is found scattered through the levels, to temporarily increase his adhesion. Finally, Harold can lure enemies onto rough surfaces, which decreases adhesion, making it easier for enemies (or Harold) to be pulled off the ceiling and fall.


In World 2 – a puddle on the laboratory floor, Harold is still at the nanoscale, but somewhat larger, as the shrinking machine’s effects have begun to wear off. As a result of his increased size, he is no longer under the grip of van der Waals forces, and he falls from the ceiling to the floor. Fortunately, a puddle on the floor (which at his scale appears to be a vast swamp), breaks his fall.


World 2 consists of nine levels where surface tension and cohesive forces determine Harold’s ability to walk on water as long as he does not obtain too much weight or exert enough downward force (through jumping) to break the surface tension of the water. The goal remains to find all of the notebook pages.  Enemies in World 2 have a weight meter, which increases as the enemies are hit (using the same mechanism as World 1, except the ammunition is now nano “dirt” instead of gold. When the enemy weight meter is high, gravity’s effect exceeds the force of the water’s surface tension, and the enemy sinks. Harold must also watch his weight to prevent his own demise. World 2 introduces two new concepts. First, the “electric shower” zaps away extra particles that have accumulated onto Harold by changing their electrostatic properties. Second is the “corkscrew tail”, which enables Harold to zip through the water, much as some forms of bacteria do. 


In World 3, Harold has reached the microscale and can no longer stand on water, but he is small enough to be able to jump on floating dust particles. World 3 contains nine levels set in a microscale cloud world. The force of gravity becomes a more dominant force because of Harold’s increased size and weight. The player, however, must now contend with electrically charged particles causing Geckoman to stick (if the charges are opposing) or repel (if the charges are opposite) to various objects and enemies. In this final world, the objective is to collect the missing pieces of the “shrinking machine” along with notebook pages that explain how to reassemble it as a “growing machine”.


World 3 expands on the concept of electrostatic forces from World 2, giving Harold the power to change his charge between positive and negative by jumping through “electric clouds”. The charged Harold can bounce off of objects that have the same charge as him, while he will stick to objects that have the opposite charge. World 3 also introduces microscale fasteners and contrasts them with nanoscale bonds. At the end of World 3, after Harold has beaten the Nanoids to the last piece of the machine, there is a final puzzle that requires the player to use knowledge about different fasteners to “build” the machine via a drag-and-drop interface.

Why Teach this Unit?

The Geckoman Project has several objectives. The first is to help students understand an emerging scientific field. As a consequence, students realize that matter behaves differently and has distinct (and unintuitive) properties at the nanoscale than it does at the macroscale.  The size of particles that are associated with one another changes important characteristics of materials. 

The second objective is to allow students to investigate how nanotechnology will transform their lives in the future.  The supplemental curriculum activities will  deepen and broaden their knowledge of nanotechnology as well as sharpen their skills in observation, critical thinking, data analysis, and reasoning. They also make connections to between disciplines such as Art, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Engineering, Technology, Mathematics, and Ethics.

Middle school classes offer an ideal setting for integrating many areas of student interest.  Students are engaged by  playing a video game and performing activities that integrate inquiry science, mathematics, nanotechnology, and ethical dilemmas. The game topics as well as the supplemental curriculum activities are engaging for students, and the knowledge gained can be applied immediately to students' instructional content and understanding beyond school.

What's in It for the Teacher?

Using the Geckoman Project meets many of the criteria by which teachers and their programs are assessed.

  • The module is standards based and meets science content, teaching, and assessment standards as expressed in the National Science Education Standards.
  • It is an interdisciplinary module, drawing most heavily from the subjects of science, enginering, mathematics, nanotechnology, and ethics.
  • The module has a Web-based technology component on which there are simulations. videos, and extensions for learning.
  • The module includes built-in assessment tools.

In addition, the module provides a means for professional development. Teachers can engage in new and different teaching practices like those described in this module without completely overhauling their entire program. In Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics, the authors write that replacement modules such as this one "offer a window through which teachers get a glimpse of what new teaching strategies look like in action." By experiencing a short-term unit, teachers can "change how they think about teaching and embrace new approaches that stimulate students to problem solve, reason, investigate, and construct their own meaning for the content." The use of a supplemental unit such as this module can encourage reflection and discussion and stimulate teachers to improve their practices by focusing on student learning.

If you have any additional questions about Geckoman, please contact the Northeastern University Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing.