By October—with the same video game technology that lets you ride a virtual surf board or drive a virtual race car—students in a pilot project should be able to hop on their virtual bicycles and peddle their way to a better understanding of science. The technology may hold special promise for those students who struggle with more traditional methods of instruction.

In an effort to engage students’ interest more fully, a group of researchers and classroom teachers has turned the platform used to play interactive video games on the internet into an educational environment to teach science.

“Students who are relatively uninterested in typical classroom labs may be drawn in with a world that they are interested in—the gaming environment,” said Chris Dede, a Timothy Worth professor of learning technology at Harvard University.

As the popularity of online gaming has increased, so has the number of young people who have become captivated with its virtual capability and functionality.

“From a gaming perspective, it’s mindless,” Dede said of the platform, but he suspects that if the platform were to deliver educational content, then students would be just as engaged with that content as they are with video games.

Funded with a $1 million National Science Foundation grant, which ends in January 2002, representatives from Nobel Learning Communities, Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, and George Mason University are working together to research what impact—if any—the gaming environment has on learning.

“We are researching whether this technology could take subjects that teachers find hard to teach to students not doing well in traditional schools and see if they can do better,” Dede said.

The gaming environment, known as the Multi User Virtual Environment (MUVE), is “largely unexplored, and it’s a big part of kid’s lives,” Dede said.

For the project, the Smithsonian is providing content, George Mason University is providing server space, and Nobel Learning Communities plans to pilot the application in some of its classrooms. Dede said he will pilot the platform in some New England schools as well.

Currently, the group—which includes technologists, scientists, historians, researchers, programmers, and teachers—is in the process of developing the browser-based application for middle school students. Together, they’re deciding what it will look like and what content it will have.

So far, they are working on two lessons: one, on bicycles, will teach physical and material science, and the second, called River City, will teach biology and ecology.

In the bicycle unit, students will be able to experiment virtually with bicycles from different time periods. Like a video game in which the user can select his or her weapon and armor, students will be able to select different bicycles, accessories, and costumes from different time periods.

Students will experiment with the bicycles by riding them in the virtual environment, like they would in a computer game. Of course, in this situation they would be asked to analyze what happened. “In this environment, students are actively engaged in problem-solving rather than being passively engaged in receiving information,” Dede said.

Also, the MUVE will contain built-in information resources—such as video, articles, audio, or pictures—to enable students to delve deeper into the topic. In addition to science, the project will cross subject borders and meet some of the learning objectives in history, language, and social studies.

“As a teacher, I can see that it’s a good way to teach some of these physical concepts that some kids just don’t get,” said Patti Philips, who teaches seventh and eighth grade at Brighton School in Seattle.

Phillips said she has some students who do not function very well in the classroom setting, but when it comes to learning from television or a computer, they have no problems.

“Seventy percent of our kids are learning by doing, and they like to be in an environment where they can be in control,” Phillips said. “With this technology, I can lead them, but they can go above and beyond what I’m teaching.”

Lynn Fontana, chief educational officer of Pennsylvania-based Nobel Learning Communities, which operates private schools across the country, likes the opportunity to develop a tool to engage students who were not previously engaged.

“As a set of private schools, we need to be significantly different and better than what is traditionally around,” Fontana said. “Our parents are paying a tuition to have their children at our schools.”

By working directly with the developers, Nobel teachers can ensure that the MUVE will address what’s hard to teach in science, what’s needed in the curriculum, and won’t waste precious classroom time, Fontana said.

The project participants hope to pilot the educational MUVE by October and have preliminary research results in November, in time to re-apply for funding.


Nobel Learning Communities

Harvard University

The Smithsonian Institution

George Mason University