Want to know what it’s like to stalk elk, or a mate, from the vantage point of a wild animal?
Educators at the Minnesota Zoo, located in a suburb south of the Twin Cities, created just such an online game a few years ago that has proved immensely popular—and educational. Called WolfQuest, it allows players to learn about wolf ecology by exploring Yellowstone National Park as that creature.
“We’ve always been interested in reaching out beyond our walls, educating people no matter where they are, and for us, we felt like the Internet was a great tool to provide access to educational resources and connect with kids where they’re at,” said Grant Spickelmier, the zoo’s assistant director of education.
High-tech games and simulations are second nature to today’s students. For educators and researchers, those virtual worlds offer the freedom to create innovative digital tools that tap into children’s motivation outside the classroom and generate excitement about science.
As prominent an authority as the National Research Council has extolled the potential of computer games and simulations to better engage young people in science learning and promote a deeper understanding of and facility with the subject.
“They enable learners to see and interact with representations of natural phenomena that would otherwise be impossible to observe—a process that helps them to formulate scientifically correct explanations for these phenomena,” the NRC said in a recent report. “Simulations and games can motivate learners with challenges and rapid feedback and tailor instruction to individual learners’ needs and interests.”
The Minnesota Zoo’s evaluation of its own game found “that kids were learning the science, were more interested in wolves, and were more interested in science as a result of playing the game,” Mr. Spickelmier said.
In WolfQuest, players learn about wolves by embarking on missions that a wolf would typically undertake, such as feeding and taking care of pups.
Players take the role of the animal and are presented with response options when they encounter certain situations, such as the presence of other wolves.
For example, when interacting with a potential mate, players can choose to leave the interaction, take a defensive stance, play, or show interest in the wolf. They are rewarded for choosing authentic wolf behavior.
WolfQuest is a multiplayer game with a chat function that allows participants to talk to one another. Launched in 2007, it continues to receive thousands of hits daily.
Although the game was created primarily for children to access on their home computers, the zoo has increasingly been contacted by teachers interested in incorporating it into their classrooms, Mr. Spickelmier said. The zoo has since crafted curricular materials to help connect the game with what students are learning in class, he said.
At the New York Hall of Science, a hands-on science and technology center in New York City, digital tools are helping draw the connections between a day at a museum and children’s lives at home and at school.
“One of the things you struggle with in an informal science-center environment is that kids come, they have a blast, but they don’t necessarily leave with anything,” said Margaret Honey, the president and chief executive officer of the facility. “The potential of digital tools to capture and then allow for playful experimentation post-fact is really cool.”
For instance, children can enter their height and weight into a computer and wear radio-frequency identification bracelets as they go down giant slides in the science playground. The bracelets record data about the speed, velocity, and friction of their journey.
They can then add other factors into the mix—like going down the slide on different materials, such as vinyl or felt, and holding weights—to manipulate the data and look at the relationship between the changes the children make and the read-outs they receive.
“What underlies the whole initiative [of the center] is really paying attention to the dynamics of what motivates students’ engagement,” Ms. Honey said. “Keeping that playful and entertaining and slightly humorous is really important to creating the right kind of positive emotional residue toward science learning. Particularly in this day of high-stakes accountability, it’s the joy and passion and deep motivation for learning that we’ve lost.”
Inside a Virtual World
Whyville, a virtual-learning environment for children started in 1999, was created by James Bower, the chief executive officer and founder of Whyville.net.
“Our original intent was to build games and network-based worlds for use in schools and out of schools and connecting the two,” he said. “And we are just now crossing that threshold, which is being accelerated by the fact that states are deciding to go with digital curriculum.”
Unlike games, Whyville is an unstructured online environment where players participate in activities to earn “clams”—the form of currency in Whyville.
Through partnerships with companies and organizations, such as Dell, Toyota, and NASA, players can explore a host of activities.
For example, the infectious “WhyPox” was introduced into Whyville, prompting a series of responses from its residents, who covered the outbreak in the Whyville Times, the player-organized newspaper.
“They didn’t know it was coming,” said Mr. Bower, the chief executive officer of Numedeon Inc., which runs Whyville. “They just started breaking out.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later came in and “vaccinated” players against the disease.
The Texas Workforce Commission has also partnered with the virtual world to finance a bioplex “where kids actually do research on how you develop antibodies, different types of viruses, and how they work,” Mr. Bower said.
The power of Whyville comes from the children’s interest in exploring and asking questions, he said.
“We finally have the technology to ‘scale’ Socrates,” he said. “We haven’t had the technology to do it right until now.”
This story was underwritten by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Games and Simulations Draw Children Into New Vistas for Accessing Science