The U.S. Department of Education and IES (Institute of Education Sciences) awarded their 2015 Small Business Innovation Research grants to 21 educational startups this spring. FedScoop reported that this year’s grants will total more than $9 million and cover initiatives in two phases. Phase I grants run for some 6 months and help startups develop prototypes for educational products; Phase II helps them move on to “fully scale their products over two years to be used in classrooms.” Nearly one-fourth of the grantees’ products focus on environment simulations through augmented and virtual realities.
Strange Loop Games’ Eco, Schell Games’ Happy Atoms, LifeSim by Spry Fox, StepWise Virtual Tutor by Querium, and Computer Science Curriculum for First Grade Students Using a Robot Games Platform by Play Works Studio all deal explicitly with modeling and simulation. The other projects use technology as well, and some use threads of simulation, although not as directly as these five. Zaption’s video editing system, for example, pulls students and faculty into a more immersive experience by allowing its users to cut into video lessons with exercises for students.
Virtual and Augmented Realities
Two of these, Eco and Happy Atoms, are great exemplars of two aspects of this apparent trend of government funding: simulation on the one hand, and augmented reality on the other.
Strange Loop Games intends to use its Phase II grant money to polish and expand its Eco simulation—and “eco” could stand for both ecology and economics in this complex virtual world:
Eco will be a multi-player game to teach standards in ecology and prepare middle schools students to be environmentally literate citizens. To play the game, students will enter a shared online world featuring a simulated ecosystem of plants and animals. Students will co-create a civilization by measuring, modeling, and analyzing the underlying ecosystem. Students will advocate for proposed plans to classmates and make decisions as a group. Cooperation and science-based decision making activities will occur, in order to prevent the destruction of the environment. The game will include teacher resources to support the alignment of game play to learning goals, and implementation.
An element that becomes clear in the YouTube presentation by company founder John Krajewski is the political dynamic of environmental and economic choices. The simulation requires students to build arguments from in-world data, present coherent rationales (which are inevitably tied to their own values and biases), and argue rationally toward a solution within the group. By going more deeply into a simulated environment, students learn skills that are relevant to today’s real-world challenges.
The team at Schell Games has developed an augmented-reality educational app that will use the Phase II grant to create a standard modeling set for atomic elements that has the potential to upend the chemistry classroom:
Happy Atoms will include a set of physical models paired with an iPad app to cover high school chemistry topics in atomic modeling. The modeling set will include individual plastic balls representing the elements of the periodic table. Students will use an iPad app to take a picture of models they create. Using computer-generated algorithms, the app will then identify the model and generate information about its physical and chemical properties and uses. The app will also inform students if a model that is created does not exist. Happy Atoms will replace or supplement lesson plans to enhance chemistry teaching. The app will include teacher resources suggesting how to incorporate games and activities to reinforce lesson plans and learning.
Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, says the way chemistry is currently taught fails to excite or engage students and discourages them from experimenting and actually experiencing discovery. “The Happy Atoms system is a tangible, interactive learning tool that combines a digital app with a physical modeling set,” he says. The plan is to make the system scalable in curricula from elementary classrooms through college chemistry labs.
Little Godlike Sponges
We see simulation as a theme in education going back well before Will Wright’s “SimCity” and Sid Meier’s “Civilization.” In the 1970s, “The Oregon Trail” broke into a new territory by taking advantage of the advent of personal computing to teach history to children. Moving forward through simulations of battles, problem solving in tower defense, and even protein folding in the University of Washington’s “Foldit,” simulations and virtual environments have become increasingly popular in the classroom. Although the virtues of some virtual worlds (such as Second Life) have had critics within academia, the notion of modeling problems, social situations, and physical structures through immersive media seems to be here to stay.
With augmented reality applications such as Project Noah, Algodoo, and many others now well-established in schools, we seem to have started down a path of blending virtual reality and the physical world to enhance learning. Kids have now had the direct experience of creating, changing, and destroying their own pretend worlds for a generation. Will that give Millennials, Gen Z-ers, and those who come after a greater sense of stewardship and responsibility as citizens?
Based on their funding patterns, it seems that the folks at IES think it might.