Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Almost 50 Years Ago, Oregon Trail Revolutionized Educational Software. Can the Game's Creators Do It Again?

Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Almost 50 Years Ago, Oregon Trail Revolutionized Educational Software. Can the Game's Creators Do It Again?

Article excerpt

Conceived for a class at a public school in Minneapolis, "Oregon Trail," is among the most popular educational computer games of all time. It loaded students in virtual covered wagons and sent them from Missouri to Oregon in a simulation of 19th-century westward expansion, contending with broken wagon axles, cholera, snake bites and river crossings along the way.

In the years since, the game has been elevated to cult status: versions of it have been preserved for play online, and it's not hard to find t-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with pixelated oxen and nostalgic phrases like "you have died of dysentery."

Now, some of the minds behind it are circling the wagons again. Not because they're under attack, but because they're working on a new piece of educational software they think can replicate Oregon Trail's success.

STEM focus

Can the team that made it strike gold twice?

They think so. Veterans of MECC, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, are making a new piece of educational software company called "Re@l Experiences at Life," which aims to introduce students to science, technology, engineering and math concepts and careers through a web portal on computers, tablets and even cell phones.

What it is, or will be, once it's fully up and running, is a web portal with different units, focusing on real-life STEM study areas, from forensics to vehicle traffic flow and invasive species. Each unit will include a classroom learning aspect -- reading materials, videos and slideshows, a field experience piece, which can be done virtually or in-person, and a real life piece, which involves watching a webcast or video chatting with a local professional in the given field.

A unit on water quality, for example, would teach kids concepts like pollution and ecosystems. Then, it would give them the tools to test water -- either virtually using kits through the portal, or out in the field in real life, with built-in geographic information systems. And finally, students would be connected with someone in a career related to water quality, such as a national expert or an employee of their state's department of natural resources, to learn about careers in water quality.

The curriculum is designed to align with district, state and federal standards.

The idea, said Paul Gullickson, the president and CEO of Re@l who formerly worked at MECC, is "to help students get excited about careers and keep people employed in the U.S."

Re@l conducted tests of the concept in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and plans to launch after it finishes raising a $500,000 round of funding, mainly from angel investors. They hope to have the product in schools by the first quarter of next year.

In analyzing the competition, Gullickson said, he's found much of the STEM-focused education technology concentrates in one area, like coding or robotics. Few are focused on careers.

"We don't see much in the way of competition at all," he said. …

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