By October–using the same video game technology that lets you ride a virtual surfboard or drive a virtual racecar–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, students would be just as engaged with that content as they are with video games.

Funded with a $1 million National Science Foundation grant, 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.”

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 would pilot the platform in some New England schools as well.

The group–which includes researchers, programmers, and teachers–is still developing the browser-based application for middle school students. So far, they are working on two lessons: one, on bicycles, will teach physical science, and the second, called River City, will teach ecology.

In the bicycle unit, students will be able to experiment virtually with bicycles from different times. 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.

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 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 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 grades at Brighton School in Seattle.

Participants hope to pilot the applications by October and have preliminary research results the following month.


Nobel Learning Communities

Harvard University

The Smithsonian Institution

George Mason University