Virtual World Village Uses Global Problems to Teach STEM Skills
In Virtual World Village, students become global problem solvers while honing their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.
Virtual World Village is a virtual world created by a team of students under the direction of John Anderson, a University of Idaho associate professor of virtual technology and design. It is one of four projects launched through the UI-Micron STEM Education Research Initiative’s second round of innovative programs to elevate STEM education by focusing on students, parents and schools.
The programs are part of a five-year project funded by a $1.2 million Micron Foundation gift.
The Micron gift helped create the initial architecture for Virtual World Village, which Anderson is now preparing to test with groups of sixth- through 10th-grade girls in Idaho.
Virtual World Village imagines the world distilled down to 100 people, based on the book “If the World Were a Village.” Each continent features a village populated by virtual people who represent the demographics of the region – for example, Asia has 61 people, while Australia has one lonely Australian – and each village faces different real-world challenges.
The concept was designed to appeal specifically to girls and minorities who are underrepresented in STEM fields, Anderson says. Prior studies suggest that these groups may be more attracted to STEM fields by projects focusing on sustainability and helping other people.
In Virtual World Village, students choose an avatar and enter the multiuser environment at the beginning of the world, which features information about STEM concepts and a huge globe that serves as a portal to the game’s challenges.
The challenges present students with problems they can solve with STEM skills that reinforce concepts taught in school curriculum. For example, in one scenario, a village has just suffered a tsunami.
“Using the lens of a STEM discipline, students will navigate the world, trying to manage the problems they face,” Anderson says.
In the tsunami example, students might be tasked with finding resources to keep the village warm in the approaching cold months. Math students could calculate how much wood they would need to heat the village using metadata embedded in the virtual trees. They then could determine how many trees they’d need to replant to keep their heating source sustainable.
Complicating their mission, student groups focused on one area will interact and compromise with other groups. The math students harvesting trees may collaborate with science students working on watershed restoration, who need to keep the village’s water source healthy and limit cutting down the trees by the stream.
“They’ll come up with their solutions for what should be done,” Anderson says.
While there is still work to be done in the Virtual World Village, one future goal of the project is to assist students to identify STEM disciplines they may want to pursue further. As students complete quests, Virtual World Village will collect information on their strengths. Anderson says this will help them understand what paths they may want to take, which often are unclear to students before they enter college.
“If they start to gravitate toward one discipline, when they come into the World it will show the sort of classes they should be taking if they want to become a STEM professional,” Anderson says. “It helps students and their parents see where their interests and abilities lie.”