A Second Life for Middle School Science

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Second Life, the virtual online world that is catching the attention of colleges and universities for its educational possibilities, hasn't been an option for middle school use because of its age limit. Although most 12-year-old students would probably find the site's graphical elements and endless social possibilities intriguing, Second Life's policy bars anyone younger than 13 from accessing any aspect of the site.

Now, using part of a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, graduate students from Ohio University's Russ College of Engineering and Technology have developed a special protected island within the virtual world where only select middle school students are allowed.

The graduate students are working with local area middle school science teachers to design interactive games that will help children grasp difficult science concepts. So far, they've developed four games, each with specific learning elements.

Games teaching science According to Assistant Professor of Computer Science Chang Liu, in addition to the prepared games, the virtual campus extends the reach of education. "Students can conduct simulated science experiments or engage in team-learning activities in our engineering buildings from anywhere, anytime."

Once on the special island, students can take full advantage of all of the features of Second Life's highly graphical virtual world. They can move about, "chat" with other students on the island, walk, run ,and even fly through highly developed landscapes, park-like settings, and even buildings. Participants can explore, build, collaborate, learn, and take part in activities as part of a virtual society, just as they might in the real world.

Second Life is just one of several technologies that the graduate students selected as part of the NSF project to help teach science to middle school students. While they found some college courses using Second Life, there were few K-12 uses, and no middle schools. That's because middle schools typically have special security requirements on their networks and in labs to keep students from wandering freely about the Internet.

Creating a safe environment
Second Life already offers a special area for teens, allowing in only those ages 13 to 18. To create a safe environment, this project introduced an additional layer of security. Students don't set up their own Second Life accounts; Chang's project takes care of that. The special island is completely isolated and can be accessed only in school with a teacher's permission, not from home.

Rafting to learn Graduate students have developed four science games for the students so far. In one, participants raft downriver to the ocean, passing through various climate checkpoints that point out environmental features like glaciers. "Instead of reading about it in a textbook," Chang said, "they're immersed in the environment."

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Another game teaches students that energy is never lost, but can be converted from one form to another. Users manipulate objects such as a hair dryer, learning how energy is conducted. When students make the right choice on the screen, they're rewarded with fireworks.

With the project in its second year, "we know our tools are fun and we know that kids like them," Chang said, but they've collected only preliminary data so far on how well students are learning new concepts from them. Once that review cycle is completed and incorporated with feedback from teachers, Change said, he hopes to expand the program into other schools.


Another of the island's games: Energy Golf

Game development
Developing the games took perhaps six months for each graduate student, working five to 10 hours or so a week. To leverage that investment and make the games available to others in the coming months, Chang said he hopes to open a second island, which will be open to other young people, not just students in specific schools.

Is it hard to convince teachers that a so-called game can be a useful learning tool? Chang said no. "Once we show them what we are doing, it becomes an easier task. We don't have any violence... In fact, you don't have to call it a game. It's a 3D simulation of a scientific experiment."

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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