Tuesday, January 24, 2012

#ALGORITHMS: "Science Ed Crafting Multiplayer Games"

"If you can't beat them, join them" is the mantra at MIT, where a massive multiplayer online game is slated to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

A $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding MIT's first massively multiplayer online game--a three-year effort with the goal of attracting 10,000 students whose avatars interact during the game.

Gaming is usually a distraction from education, soaking up hours of a student's time each day that could have been spent studying. Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) are the biggest time-sink of the genre, since players become immersed in a fantasy world where only their skills matter, unlike the real world where status often overrules skill. But as the old saying goes: If you can't beat them, join them.

MIT's Education Arcade has developed a number of games that try to lure students away from time-wasting alternatives. But it has not yet attempted so vast an undertaking as crafting the virtual world of a massively multiplayer online game.

"We have worked on Web delivered and mobile games and a large collaborative alternate reality game recently," said MIT professor Eric Klopfer, director of the Education Arcade. "But this is the first MMOG that the Education Arcade has worked on."

Filament Games is working with MIT to design this massively multiplayer online educational game.
Klopfer claims that massively multiplayer online games are a good fit for higher education because knowledge is often built collaboratively in both science and MMOGs. In both arenas, participants often must work on teams.

"Much scientific discovery and engineering includes working together on teams with diverse skills," said Klopfer. He noted that this is something that students often don't get to experience, so there was a desire to model that experience in some way.

According to Klopfer, developers of commercial MMOGs have already shown that the best players use a technique akin to the "scientific method" where hypotheses are conceived, then debated, modeled and tested in collaboration with other players. Thus the same type of forums where players debate the best way to solve "Dungeons & Dragons" riddles can be enlisted to simulate scientists, engineers and technologists working together on multidisciplinary STEM problems.

"I must admit that I was skeptical about MMOGs for a number of years until I started playing," Klopfer said. "The community, pace of the games and sense of exploration that you get fits well with a world of building STEM knowledge."

The game, which is being developed in collaboration with Filament Games, will allow players to assume the roles of specialists in various fields. For instance, to teach biology, students might assume the roles of ecologist, geneticist and molecular biologist, who must work together to solve a question chain about Mendelian genetics. The players progress through the question chain by accomplishing tasks. For instance, the ecologist might collect samples, which the geneticist then needs to breed and the molecular biologist evaluates.

"Similarly, scaling a tower may involve calculating the height of that tower to get the right amount of rope. This in turn involves calculations based on similar triangles and the Pythagorean Theorem; all of which is done in the game through tasks," Klopfer said.
The students will be judged on how much progress they make getting through the question chains, with teachers getting daily feedback reports that pinpoint where particular students are struggling. The MMOG will conform to the Next Generation Science Standards, as well as the Common Core Standards in mathematics.