Mission: Evolution—Using Video Games to Enhance Informal Science Education

The question that inspired our project, Mission: Evolution, was this: How can recreational video games be integrated into a free-choice, afterschool environment in ways that motivate high school students to engage in science? This project has unfolded in three phases since its inception in 2009. During the initial stage, multiple class sections of middle school students individually played Spore Origins on an iPod Touch during regularly scheduled class time. Individual play on the iPods was enhanced by whole-class discussion of the game using an interactive whiteboard. A detailed account of this phase of the project can be found in Evans (2010). In phase two (Fall, 2010), high school students played the title Spore during class time to explore concepts such as speciation and mutation, as depicted in the game. The students were required to keep an expert log that noted consistencies and inconsistencies while also justifying the imposed functional evolution of their own creatures during game play. In the final phase (Spring, 2011), small groups of high school students developed scientifically sound learning games using Spore Galactic Adventures in an afterschool setting. A detailed account of these phases can be found in Evans and Biedler (2012). Given that the same teacher was involved in all three phases (and is co-author on this chapter), the development of her views for adopting recreational video games matured along with the sophistication of the games. The role of learners also progressed from consumers of prebuilt titles to designers and developers of their own titles. The extant literature highlights the value of adopting video game technology with a variety of teaching strategies and learning approaches dependent on the goals of instruction (Honey & Hilton, 2011; Stenkuehler & Duncan, 2009).

The story of Mission: Evolution begins from the perspective of a middle-school teacher, determined to make a seventh-grade science classroom interesting because early adolescent students often find traditional methods of instruction mundane compared to recreational video games. Given this challenge, the science teacher was inspired to integrate recreational video games, specifically the Spore series of titles for multiple platforms (iPod Touches and PC laptops), into the science curriculum during coverage of the topic of evolutionary biology. The overall purpose of such integration was to provide learners an engaging mediated experience to facilitate learning that could be evidenced via traditional and alternative assessment protocols. The specific curricular goal was to teach biological evolution with regard to natural selection and speciation as required by state and national standards. A noted challenge of this phase of the project was to balance the constraints of the curriculum with the opportunities for engagement provided by recreational video games.

The start of the intervention process began with collaboration between the classroom science teacher and university professors from the fields of the learning sciences and educational psychology (author and co-author), with the intent of making learning meaningful to students while closely aligning with existing course curricula and state standards. Understandably, the district science advisor and school principal were concerned about deviating too far from established and standardized instructional and assessment protocols to the detriment of student achievement. After much iterative refinement and collaboration among the authors, the results were inspiring as students immersed themselves in critical inquiry motivated by player-invoked evolution of their creatures in Spore Origins, and in thinking about how the video game was deficient in its portrayal of the biology curriculum they had learned. These deficiencies have been documented elsewhere (Bohannon, 2008; Evans, Holbrook, Blevins, & Biedler, 2011), but the potential innovative aspect of this phase of the project was that students were guided (by design in the video game and instructional supports) to expand and confirm their growing understanding of evolution by leveraging the video game as a learning medium. The gains in understanding were recorded using traditional (paper-and-pencil post-lesson tests) and alternative (expert logs) assessment protocols. Based on these initial results (as detailed in Evans, 2010), the Mission: Evolution project was translated to a high school biology classroom. Responding to a call from the MacArthur Foundation to challenge educators and learning scientists to propose innovative uses of recreational video games for instruction and learning, the transition was enhanced by allowing students opportunities to engage productively with recreational video games outside of class, dedicating a substantial portion of the time developing their own games to convey scientific ideas to others. In fact, our project was recognized with an award in a competition also sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation (see Evans, 2010; and Evans & Bielder, 2012, for further information about this phase of the project).

The next iterations of Mission: Evolution were a MacArthur Foundation, Digital Media & Learning Competition sponsored project. In these phases, the improvements to the project were twofold. First, we invited tenth-grade biology students to apply knowledge of evolutionary biology covered in daytime course work to detect errors and misconceptions of science while playing Spore (phase two). These activities took place over two months in Fall 2010. Second, the classroom science teacher and graduate students from science education and computer science mentored students in game design as they built individualized games in Spore Galactic Adventures, an expansion pack for Spore that allows players to develop self-generated levels and challenges in a structured environment where tutorials guide the student in-game (phase three). In Spring 2011, students completed the final phase of the project prior to presentation at the Digital Media & Learning (DML) Conference in early March of that year. Students adopted insights gained during the Spore analysis and planned ways to incorporate these insights into a final Spore Galactic Adventures-generated game. The science teacher judged final video game products on how well they conveyed a specific scientific concept, such as speciation (the evolutionary process that results in new species). The teacher based assessment on standards, objectives, and lesson plans from the daily curriculum. In parallel, graduate students evaluated final deliverables on how well the games leveraged sound game design principles—such as whether the games provided challenging yet achievable goals—and assigned behaviors to characters that supported players in succeeding to win the game. The highest-judged games, along with supporting media and materials, were presented at the DML conference in March 2011 at an invited session (see Evans & Biedler, 2012, for details on these phases of the project).

Overall, the different phases of the Mission: Evolution project addressed specific learning needs. For the middle school phase (phase one) conducted in Spring 2009, the learning goals focused on mastering curriculum taught in a life science classroom. The objectives took into consideration the standards of learning (SOL) set forth by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the need to establish a motivational classroom climate for participants. A significant SOL objective taken from existing curricula was to conduct a scientific investigation, which was accomplished through game play of Spore Origins on the iPod Touch and Spore on a desktop computer projected onto an interactive whiteboard. For this assignment, students were tasked with organizing data into tables, creating models to demonstrate and explain content, interpret data through evaluation, and to contemplate the nature of science (Reiber, 2005). A secondary SOL objective included investigating how organisms interacted with each other, which focused on competition, cooperation, and territorial imperative among species. A tertiary SOL objective was to investigate and understand how organisms changed over time, including changes through mutation, adaptation, extinction, and natural selection. Thus, for this standard, students were challenged to particularly focus on the components of natural selection present in Spore. They also investigated environmental influences on change in organisms, and the role of genetic variation during evolution. While addressing the SOL objectives, students were challenged to extend their knowledge and to formulate their own definition of evolution by creating an actualized representation of their knowledge via a creature developed in Spore.

As students analyzed the game, they needed to exercise analytical skills useful in science and to use technical language while making claims based on observation. A further challenge was to function as budding scientists in a collaborative setting. Students were given the task of discussing their findings in an open classroom forum, and reconciling their conflicting conclusions to come to an eventual consensus. The instructional program provided scaffolds with the intent that students would extend their conceptual knowledge about biological evolution. Students combined their knowledge and skills to document findings in a readable data format while experiencing the scientific method in an authentic setting. Overall, the program aimed to develop confidence and motivation in students first through individual success and then through computer-supported collaborative learning (Evans & Biedler, 2012).

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