Wednesday, April 20, 2011

MIT's Vanished STEM game

From MITnews, by Peter Dizikes

An MIT-produced interactive game, 'Vanished,' now being played by thousands online, offers a novel experiment in alternative science education.

"This month, thousands of middle-school students are going online to play an interactive video game. That might not sound surprising, by itself. But in this case, the game is a special science-mystery project, “Vanished,” created by MIT researchers on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution, as a novel experiment in alternative science education.

“Vanished” is a two-month-long game, which debuted the week of April 4 and stems from an initial scenario revealed in recent video messages on the site. The premise is that people living in the future have contacted us in the present, to answer a question: What event occurred between our time and theirs that led to the loss of civilization’s historical records? Students must decode clues in hidden messages, and in response find and provide information about Earth’s current condition, such as temperature and species data, to help people in the future deduce what wound up happening.

“Vanished,” the first game of its kind, is intended to take the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills kids often develop playing other forms of video games, and translate those habits into a scientific context; the goal is to help students experience science as an engaging process of mystery and discovery.

“Too often, kids are convinced science is no fun and not for them,” says Scot Osterweil, research director of MIT’s Education Arcade, a group jointly housed in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program and the Scheller Teacher Education Program, which created the game. “They believe it’s all about rote memorization and procedure. But as game designers, we’re convinced that game playing is a lot like science: There is problem-solving, exploration, collaboration, hypothesizing, testing and learning from your failures.”

Informal learning

So far in April, more than 5,000 students have registered for “Vanished,” and approximately 4,000 messages are being posted daily on the site’s forums, where participants discuss clues and share information. Students can also hunt for clues at 17 Smithsonian-affiliated science museums nationally.

The game’s conceptual origins lie in discussions researchers in the Comparative Media Studies group have had with Smithsonian officials, dating back about four years. The creation of “Vanished” took place after the MIT researchers won a grant to develop the game from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009.

The NSF has an interest in projects such as “Vanished” due in part to the agency’s findings, over many years of research surveys, that much of the public’s science knowledge comes from outside the classroom. The grant for developing the game came from the NSF’s program in “Informal Science Education,” which seeks new ways to interest students in science.

The MIT researchers hope that participating in “Vanished” will help break down myths among students, and help them realize that in asking questions and hunting for information, they are performing tasks central to science.

“Scientists aren’t a priesthood of people with secret knowledge,” Osterweil says. “They don’t walk around with it all in their heads. They do research to find it out.”

For that matter, a group of scientists will be participating in video chats with the students later this month, to listen to the students’ hypotheses and offer feedback. “I think it’s a great opportunity, because the students are not just learning content, but acting as practicing scientists,” says Elizabeth Cottrell, a geologist and director of the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program. “The students are developing scientific habits of mind, not just memorizing vocabulary.”

It was also critical, Osterweil points out, to create a game in which students could not merely find the correct answers by looking them up online; rather, they must go out into their neighborhoods and actively record information. For this reason, the scenario played out in “Vanished” could not involve Earth’s past — about which answers can be googled — but only its present and future.

A model for future games

“Vanished” was produced by a team of researchers in Comparative Media Studies, including Osterweil, project manager Caitlin Feeley and even several students in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). The MIT researchers hope to use the game as a model for the creation of future online science-education tools, and have created metrics to assess its performance.

“One thing I like about ‘Vanished’ is that there is a lot of assessment built in,” says Cottrell, who was not involved in creating the game, but says she will also be interested in evaluating how the students are responding to the game during her virtual discussion with them.

The ideal response a teacher can have when assessing an educational game is, according to Osterweil, “‘I’m seeing performance from kids I wasn’t expecting to see.’” In that sense, he adds, “We’re hoping teachers and parents see what their kids are capable of.”

Osterweil promises that “Vanished” will have some surprising plot twists for its participants as the month rolls on, though naturally he could not yet reveal what they were on the record. For that, students will have to sign up and play along."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Technovation Challenge Pitch Night

You are cordially invited to the Technovation Challenge Pitch Night on April 28, 2011 at the Santa Monica Public Library Auditorium.

Join us as we celebrate the conclusion of the Spring Technovation Challenge with a business plan competition and an awards presentation for the winning teams and outstanding individuals.

The evening will feature keynote speaker:
Lucy Hood, Executive Director, Institute for Communication Technology Management, USC Marshall School of Business

Along with the following VCs and entrepreneurs, as our Pitch Night Judges:
Dana Settle, Partner, Greycroft, LLC
Dave Siemer, Managing Director, Siemer and Associates
Eva Ho, VP Marketing and Operations, Factual
Karen Jashinsky, Founder and CEO, O2 MAX

This will be a unique opportunity to network with industry leaders and budding entrepreneurs and to learn how to take an idea from concept to launch! Register at

The mission of the Technovation Challenge is to promote women in technology by giving girls the skills and confidence they need to be successful in computer science and entrepreneurship. We aim to inspire girls to see themselves not just as users of technology, but as inventors, designers, builders and entrepreneurs. By showing girls that the high-tech world is an exciting place marked by collaboration and creativity, we hope to encourage more young women to enter the field.

In the 9-week course, high school students design a mobile phone app prototype, write a business plan, and "pitch" their plan to a panel of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs at a high-visibility Pitch Night event. Winners of each regional Pitch Night will come to the San Francisco Bay Area for a National Pitch Night.

The Technovation Challenge is run by Iridescent, a 501(c)(3) non-profit which provides STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education for underserved and underrepresented youth. Iridescent’s mission is to use science, technology and engineering to develop persistent curiosity and to show that knowledge is empowering. If you cannot attend but would like to sponsor the event, donations, in-kind or otherwise, are tax deductible. Further details for sponsorship can be found here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations

Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations - the prepublication offer from the National Academies Press:

"At a time when scientific and technological competence is vital to the nation's future, the weak performance of U.S. students in science reflects the uneven quality of current science education. Although young children come to school with innate curiosity and intuitive ideas about the world around them, science classes rarely tap this potential. Many experts have called for a new approach to science education, based on recent and ongoing research on teaching and learning. In this approach, simulations and games could play a significant role by addressing many goals and mechanisms for learning science: the motivation to learn science, conceptual understanding, science process skills, understanding of the nature of science, scientific discourse and argumentation, and identification with science and science learning.

To explore this potential, Learning Science: Computer Games, Simulations, and Education, reviews the available research on learning science through interaction with digital simulations and games. It considers the potential of digital games and simulations to contribute to learning science in schools, in informal out-of-school settings, and everyday life. The book also identifies the areas in which more research and research-based development is needed to fully capitalize on this potential.

Learning Science will guide academic researchers; developers, publishers, and entrepreneurs from the digital simulation and gaming community; and education practitioners and policy makers toward the formation of research and development partnerships that will facilitate rich intellectual collaboration. Industry, government agencies and foundations will play a significant role through start-up and ongoing support to ensure that digital games and simulations will not only excite and entertain, but also motivate and educate."

Joystick Labs Indie Accelerator

If you are involved in an Indie startup in the North Carolina area, check out this incubator/accelator initiative:

"You bring a great idea and great people, we provide the keys to minimizing the risk of starting a game company: funding, support, mentoring, and introductions.

Joystick Labs is an innovative accelerator program focused exclusively on identifying and launching the next generation of digitally distributed video game companies. We are looking for teams of 2-5 developers who are passionate about games and social media, have a clear vision for the type of experience they want to create, and who are entrepreneurs at heart.

We don’t care how many titles you have previously shipped. We are more focused on your vision for your company and how many great titles your company will ship in the future."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


"Treadsylvania" is another cool game-based learning product from the NMSU Learning Games Lab