Virtual Environments and K-12 Education: A Tour of the Possibilities-Part 2

Article excerpt

[In the July/August issue of MMIS, Kelly Czarnecki started her "tour of the possibilities" of using virtual environments in K-12 education with a look at two projects based on/in Teen Second Life--Science in Second Life, and Suffern Middle School in Second Life. Here's the rest of the tour!--Ed.]

WHYVILLE

Whyville (www.whyville.net) was launched in 1999 by Numedeon, Inc. as a place primarily for kids aged 8-15 to engage in fun, hands-on, educationally constructive activities. Collaboration and competition through games to earn clams--the currency of Whyville--and participation in activities related to career choices are important staples of this environment.

WHY-TEXAS; WHYVILLE TEXAS CHALLENGE

In 2007, Whyville received $440,000 from the Texas Workforce Commission (www.twc.state.tx.us) to help Whyville users aged 14-15 learn about biotech and drug design and to expose them to careers related to those subjects. Key partners and stakeholders in the project include the Texas Business & Education Coalition (TBEC) Biotech advisory team, San Antonio Manufacturers Association (SAMA), San Antonio academies, Kelly Aviation Center, and Texas biotech and advanced manufacturing employers.

Whyville Bioplex helps tweens and teens learn how to develop vaccines in this virtual world against Why-Pox, a flu-like disease that causes the avatars of Whyvillians to break out in red spots unless treated appropriately. Whyville PlaneWorks allows users to participate in building airplanes, something they couldn't easily do in real life. The program also notes when a user is from a region in Texas, in which case local educational programs from colleges will be available to them on their screen during their Whyville experience.

Why-Texas (www.why-texas.com) is the website for the competition where teachers (or individuals) can sign their students up to compete in an attempt to earn the most clams by visiting the Bioplex or PlaneWorks and achieving success in the educational, hands-on games. The earnings for the winners can translate to real-life prizes, including science kits for the classroom.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Dennis Oubre, a technology education teacher for Waco Independent School District (www.wacoisd.org) University Middle School says that incorporating Whyville into the classroom was offered as an alternative to the regular curriculum by the school's director of Career & Technical Education, Donna McKethan. "I started by using the Christmas break to thoroughly explore Whyville before introducing it to my classes. I became proficient in most of the games, projects, and challenges prior to the students in order to familiarize and prepare myself for any questions the students may ask during the course. By doing so, I was able to assist and advise them in successful strategies for most of the activities in which they participated."

The coordination of students schoolwide rather than just from a single classroom has been a positive experience. Allowing students to access the activities from home on their own time has also been a plus. The collaborative communication afforded by the virtual world has helped the classroom be a place where students don't always have to talk and walk across the room to engage with each other. "The students are exploiting the strengths of individuals to advance the entire group by using organization and communication skills they normally use in face-to-face group work," says Oubre.

Researcher Yasmin Kafai, an associate professor at UCLAGraduate School of Education & Information Studies, has studied the Whyville community for 6 years through a National Science Foundation-funded grant. In a recent post on The MacArthur Foundation's Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning blog (http://tinyurl.com /5arezu), she writes, "Conversation about shared experiences and interests is what truly [drives] community in virtual worlds. …