Software Evaluation by Shannan Muskopf

Balloon Car Builder - WGBH Interactive, 1998
Version 6.5r1 Copyright Macromedia Inc


Balloon Car Builder is a small program that lets the user build a virtual balloon car. The user can manipulate the shape of the car’s body, the length of the axles, the size of the wheels, and the diameter of the hole where air is expelled (propulsion). Once the car has been built the user can test drive it. The computer will analyze the distance the car has traveled. You can then go back and adjust the car’s design and try again.

The program also contains detailed instructions on how to build a real balloon car out of household items.

When I downloaded this program from Tucows, it was listed as an educational program for 8th to 12th grade. The interface is simple enough that it could be used by younger students also, and in fact seems to be geared for elementary students. Older students would probably find it childish.

Technical Interface and Usability

The program loads quickly and easily, and does not take up much space on the computer. The buttons work and most of the navigation is intuitive. It is so simple, even very young children could operate it. There is no way for students to get a wrong answer, the program offers a set of choices for the students to choose from by pointing and clicking.

The program does not allow for other programs to be open at the same time, this may only be a problem with the Macintosh version of the program. I’ve listed it as a potential problem because the most obvious use of this program for older physical science students would be to manipulate the car parameters, run the car, and then create a spreadsheet or graph that shows how each element affects the distance a car travels. Because the program must be run by itself, students wouldn’t be able to have a spreadsheet program open to record data.

Analysis of Software -Pedagogical Dimensions

1. Epistemology

Objectivist -------------------------------------------------------------------------x----Constructivist

This program does not offer the students any kind of scientific truths or knowledge, it simply gives the students things to manipulate and allows the students to build their own knowledge. It offers several tips to tie the object’s parameters into the real world. For instance, it asks students to think about how trucks are designed, how big are the wheels, and what is the shape of the body in real cars. So it not only allows the students to build their own knowledge base, it helps them tie that knowledge to the real world.

2. Pedagogical Philosophy

Objectivist --------------------------------------------------------x----------------------Constructivist

The program allows for some construction of student knowledge. By manipulating the car’s design, the student can discover which factors will affect the car’s travel the most. Though it does limit the choices a student can make, suggesting only 4 things can really be changed in the car’s design. Students who build their own cars, outside the program, may discover a lot of other things could be changed to improve their car’s performance.

3. Underlying Psychology

Behavioral ----------------------------------------------------------------x-----------------Cognitive

Students are presented with information, including what elements can be manipulated by the car. They use that information to build their own unique car and test its performance. The feedback is internal, even a slow car isn’t “wrong”, though students may instinctively try to build a car that performs best. Mental modeling is somewhat encouraged by the tips that help students visualize real cars, however the program does have its limitations, students may not be able to make the connection between their virtual balloon cars and the design of real cars.

4. Goal Orientation

Sharply Focused ---------------------------------------------------------------------x----Unfocused

The program encourages inductive learning by trial and error. There are no wrong answers, no explanations of why the car works a certain way. It is, in some respects, a virtual reality program (a simple one), giving students the opportunity to manipulate their cars in a variety of ways, and see what happens.

5. Experiential Validity

Abstract -----------------------------------------x------------------------------------------ Concrete

For this dimension, I rated the software in the middle of the spectrum. It contains some concrete elements, like the user having to manipulate the item and observe how the outcome changed. It was also, however, still point and click, and a student could do the exact same observations by designing a real balloon car and observing its performance.

6. Teacher Role

Didactic -----------------------------------------------------------------------------x------ Facilitative

The teacher’s role when using this educational software is strictly facilitative. The teacher may consult with students, ask some thought provoking questions regarding the design of the car, or aid students with technical problems. The teacher is not put in a position where she has to tell the students anything or lecture to them about the topic.

7. Flexibility

Teacher-proof ----x------------------------------------------------------------------Easily modified

Nothing about this program can be changed or altered by the teacher. Its simplistic design makes it easy to use, but there is no way for a teacher to add new parameters to the car’s design. It would be interesting if the program not only listed distance, but car speed, or if there was some way to add other elements to the car’s design (like tilting of the wheels)

8. Value of Errors

Errorless ------------------------------------------------------------------------x----Learning from

This program has no correct answers or choices, all learning is done from a trial and error standpoint. The program does not even offer goals, or point out that a car that travels farthest is a “better design”.

9. Origin of Motivation

Extrinsic --------------------------------------------------------------------------x----------Intrinsic

The program does not offer any extrinsic rewards, it places no value whatsoever on what types of cars perform best, or even what would qualify as “best”. Students are motivated intrinsically by being able to build their own unique car and observing how it performs

10. Accommodation of Individual Differences

Nonexistent ---x------------------------------------------------------------------------Multi-faceted

This particular dimension was hard to judge, the program was so simple even a very young child could operate it, and probably understand to some degree what is occurring. It seems to be missing elements from the opposite end of the spectrum, the program could be designed for advanced physics students and take into account many other elements like friction, acceleration, force. An more advanced student is likely to run a few trials, and quickly become bored.

12. User Activity


The program does enable users to generate and construct their own knowledge base and provides very little access to content. There is no section that gives the students any kind of information about wheel size and how it relates to car speed, nor how the shape of a car might reduce wind resistance. It is assumed that the user will generate this knowledge on their own.

13. Cooperative Learning

Unsupported ------x--------------------------------------------------------------------------Integral

Though students could work in cooperative groups to do this program, it seems to be geared toward individuals. The students individually design their cars, test them, redesign and test them again. The teacher could establish cooperative groups to extend the program’s dimensions, for instance, as a group they could build their real cars, or as a group they could create a graph or report. The program itself does not actually support the use of cooperative groups.

14. Cultural Sensitivity

Nonexistent --------x---------------------------------------------------------------------------Integral

This program seems to make a token effort to add some cultural sensitivity, its tips section has quotes from presumably real students all over the world, their names and ages are given. If you click the help button, a pop-up of these tips appears, for example a tip from Susan R., age 10, Dallas, Tx states “My rollerblades have tiny wheels and once, I beat my brother’s bike”. It seems to be an attempt at cultural sensitivity because the tips from students from across the world are presented rather than dry statements.


I would recommend Balloon Car Builder for elementary or middle school physical science students as a way to help the students visualize how a car’s design affects the distance it travels. The program would be useful as a part of an overall curriculum on air pressure, friction, velocity and acceleration, but would not easily stand alone as the only element. Students should be given the opportunity to see the real cars by building their own, and the virtual cars would supplement nicely to aid the students in considering their designs.