By Anne Collier
You’re an avatar in Whyville (a virtual world with some 1.5 million users aged 8-16) and you’re tired of tweaking your (design of your) avatar, so you’re thinking about focusing more on earning clams (virtual currency) and building a career – maybe even a real-world one. So here’s an interesting opportunity: Because Whyville now has its own power grid, you can help manage it by figuring out the right mix of traditional and renewable energy sources to power the “world.” If you don’t mind spending a few clams, you can also design and build a green home and measure how much power it’s pulling from the grid to learn “good energy behaviors.”
All this is part of a new program in the virtual world called “WhyPower” designed to help middle-school-age students “understand why math and science matter” by actually using them to earn clams, learn about a career, see what science and math classes they need for high school graduation, and “level up” in the game by demonstrating what they’re learning about energy and the environment. Whyville says the program also encourages them “to plan ahead and take challenging STEM courses in their high school program.” Here’s a short YouTube video of what it looks like to work an electric farm in Whyville. So far, the program’s been piloted in middle schools in Texas, because that’s where Whyville’s headquartered, but its partner DaVinci Minds is working on scaling up to national participation with funding through Educause.
This is an idea, and program, whose time has come – and not just because Whyville is 76% female (according to a Joan Ganz Cooney Center report) and it’s great to give girls exposure to science and engineering careers. This is today’s learning-by-doing – kids can test out if something’s right for them in a way that’s collaborative and engaging (see how this teacher describes it).