Learning science from simulations and games: Focus on Whyville

I was reading through a article from Education Week that includes work by my colleague Bruce Howard related to the use of simulations and 3-D models for improving science learning. You can read in the article about Bruce’s e-Missions at Wheeling Jesuit U. as they engage students with simulated scientific models, but focus heavily on encouraging students to work collaboratively to solve problems. The sheer amount of technology now available to teachers to support science learning is massive. When I was a graduate student, there were relatively few projects that had any sort of large exposure.

Whyville was created in what appears to be Adobe Flash and the earliest reference seems to be 2002. I haven’t seen a lot of research on it, but I believe it stemmed from either a DOE or NSF grant. There are now a number of sponsors for it including NASA, Adobe, US Department of Labor, and even Toyota. There are several games students can play and much of it appears tied to nutrition, safety issues, and workforce development. Students get to choose how their avatars appear with a few easy steps. I’m still not sure what the theory, design, and assessment outcomes are with Whyville, which is a bit of a limitation in terms of choosing to use it or not. I’m not sure if it qualifies as a simulation and seems to be more focused on collaborative discourse and game play, which are both valid outcomes. However, whether or not students learn from the games, which seem to focus on math and some science, but packaged within everyday activities is still unclear. How is learning assessed in the system? I’m also interested to see whether to what degree the fidelity of simulated elements must exist in order for learning to occur

I’d love to see some studies on how content, norms, and self-expression is communicated or allowed in the digital system, which takes on many of the roles of the teacher. I’d also like to see how communication between and among students allows for learning, whether it is the acquisition of content knowledge or the social construction of new knowledge. The role of the system and the individual participants in relation to communication tools and preferences would be incredibly interesting to see. How do they use them? Why do they use them? Who uses them. I’m left with a lot of questions about its use and even more about whether it qualifies as a simulation, game, virtual communication space, virtual sandboxes etc.

In a recently submitted article, I propose another term for constructs that do not have sufficient game elements to be a game, sufficient models of current realities to be simulations, or are 3-D spaces for social outcomes. This term is eidolon from the ancient Greek was defined as an idealized thing or, in this case, an idealized or projected model of a system. It different from a simulacrum in that constructions (digital or otherwise) are intended to model reality as well as we, the designers, understand it now. Eidolons are representations of situations, objects, systems as we would like them to be. This could be a battlefield in Iraq during Desert Storm in which we projected idealized situations, either negative or positive, before engaging in battle in order to prepare for a variety of possible outcomes. However, because reality cannot be known through current intelligence or historical reflection, it is not a simulation, because it is not attempting to accurately depict a system as it is now. Due to lack of an accurate model of the system, it cannot.


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