We have all read with growing alarm the statistics about underachievement in science, especially for girls. So what do we do? Turn off the TV and take away computer time to make for more time for studying?
Most progressive teachers will tell you that teaching with new mediums is having great success so I was eager to explore a new phenomenon in science education—a computer game. Not just any run-of-the-mill game—it’s an ARG.
ARGs or Alternate Reality Games first made it into our collective attention through films like David Fincher’s The Game. In the film Michael Douglas’s character, a wealthy financier, the “man who has everything,” is unknowingly gifted with a most extraordinary and terrifying experience as a birthday present from his younger brother—a perilous live action game that hijacks his entire life.
In real life, ARGs are more benign but they do use events from ordinary life in ways that can make them an extraordinary event for the player. A recent collaboration between The Smithsonian and MIT’s Education Arcade brought to life Vanished—an ARG that was conceived to get middle school children ages 10.5 to 14 interested in science. Their goal is to “inspire engagement and problem solving skills through science.”
Vanished, which began this April, was played over eight weeks and is now finished. Aiming to put “the science back in science fiction” the game required players to work through a scientific process and explore a variety of disciplines in order to solve the mystery. A completely new form of gaming, Vanished turns participants into investigator, racing to solve puzzles and online challenges, visiting museums and collecting samples from their neighborhoods to help unlock the secrets of the game.
The premise of the game is simple: There is a mystery afoot that scientists at MIT and the Smithsonian are investigating. But they project that before the next full moon, they will need the help of middle-schoolers across the country to understand an impending environmental disaster, secrets that they alone can uncover.
The game is only open to children ages 10.5 – 14 but adults can create a special Watcher account and follow the game that way, a perfect way to be able to share the experience with your child but not be intrusive.
Each of the eight weeks held a separate challenge, a new chapter in the mystery that needed investigation and specific problem solving skills. The game drove players to delve deeply into science and theory, asking them to collaborate with each other, play games that unlock clues and explore their own neighborhoods to gather scientific data. As they documented and shared evidence, like what types of plants and animals live in their area, and shared it with other players, all players got a better idea of how the planet differs from area to area, increasing their understanding of the diversity of the planet.
Players earned rewards like badges and achievement points when they solved puzzles or demonstrated scientific thinking, such as revising a hypothesis based on new information. They were also able to chat with scientists and MIT grad students who staffed the administration end of the game.
The game was not only innovative in terms of content, its presentation is spot on for the demographic. Previous chapters were recapped in graphic novel form, the same format that propelled Diary of a Wimpy Kid to the top of the bestsellers lists. Video chats with scientists and MIT graduate students will be archived on YouTube.
The team at MIT also designed materials for teachers who wanted to use the game in classes but it was mainly intended to be a learning activity outside of school.
The current game is now over and you can read about the conclusion at the MIT site. Make sure you sign up for notification of future games while you’re there and let your kids look around on the Smithsonian site that showcases their scientists. They’ve done a incredible job of making science and scientists hip, fascinating and exciting.
“When you teach kids science informally, one of the best things you can do is to encourage them to have a passion for the subject. If you can foster a long term interest in it, then it’s the whole ‘teach a man to fish’ principle,” says MIT’s Caitlin Feeley.
Vanished seems to have delivered on its goal to show kids that science is not just about memorizing tables or remembering facts; it is about solving problems, exploring and creative thinking.
Now that the game is done, the team will publish a handbook with the results, and release a package with the open source content-management tools built for the game. This package of tools will allow other institutions to put together a quality game for low cost and without a high level of technological expertise, with only a small group of content experts, writers and actors.