By Anna Lynn Spitzer
03.09.05 – Dinosaurs may be extinct, but they’re providing powerful fossil fuel for science education programs. The Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana , Calif. will launch a $3.5 million dinosaur exhibit later this year, complete with a 120-foot-long, 26-foot-high Argentinosaurus and a 40-foot-long, 12-foot-high T. Rex. Behind the scenes, the exhibit will incorporate gaming platforms developed by Calit2’s UCI Game Culture and Technology Lab. The goal: to teach kids life science, physiology, anatomy, archeology, paleontology and more in an exciting, fun-filled environment.
Robert Nideffer , game lab director and UCI associate professor of studio art and informatics, sees the collaboration as a perfect fit. “Kids love dinosaurs and they love games. When you combine those things in innovative ways to teach kids, it’s a win-win situation.”
The Discovery Science Center agrees. The museum is supporting the effort with a $300,000 grant. Nideffer and Walt Scacchi , from UCI’s Institute for Software Research, who together wrote the proposal, are the lead PIs developing the novel gaming platforms for use in the exhibit.
“The challenge of designing science learning games that combine scientific knowledge from the research horizon with computer game technologies for a fun-filled game is an exciting and under-explored outreach opportunity,” says Scacchi.
The creative technology will link the physical installation space at the museum to an online environment. Children will begin the “quest-based” experience by swiping an ID card or obtaining an RFID bracelet – the details are still in the design phase – that will identify them and track their progress. They will then embark on specific tasks – searching for dinosaur bones to build a skeleton, for example, at the center – then complete the tasks online when they return to their classrooms. “Establishing this relationship between the physical installation space and some kind of net-based or Web-based representation is one of the things the Discovery Science Center found very appealing,” says Nideffer. “It involves custom infrastructure development that’s really at the cutting edge of research. Because of our affiliation with Calit2, we’re in a better position to do that kind of thing than just about anybody.”
The tracking system will allow the children not only to resume their individual work online, but to augment it. “If a child finds a certain bone at the museum and adds it to his skeleton, that event could trigger the transmission of a piece of data to a server that’s tied to that particular kid,” Nideffer explains. “So when he goes home or back to the classroom and logs onto the Web, he might see a virtual version of his quest, in which he could continue building the skeleton.” When the child finishes assembling the skeleton, the software could potentially animate the dinosaur, leading to an ongoing story online.
The quests for older children will differ from those for the younger kids, opening the door to age-appropriate learning opportunities.
In addition, kids will be able to link to related information on the Web that will enhance their learning experience. Eventually, Nideffer, and collaborators Scacchi and Celia Pearce , Calit2’s new media arts research and external relations manager, envision the creation of a three-dimensional, multi-user game environment. “This would be dependent on the availability of future funding,” says Nideffer, “but the game could incorporate these creatures running around, interacting with each other, and teaching the children about adaptation to their environment and earth system sciences. You could even let kids genetically engineer their own dinosaurs, or change the climate conditions to see what would happen. The possibilities are endless."
Developing the gaming platform has not been without its challenges. According to Scacchi, there is an established body of knowledge about the ways people use networked computing systems in research, but comparatively little is known about how people use computers to play or how they learn from computer games. In addition, there are engineering challenges in designing hardware and software systems that deliver the learning/gaming experience in a child-friendly way. But, he says, the team has benefited from collaborating with the Discovery Science Center and is finding solutions to these challenges.
Scacchi hopes that science centers and museums will become established venues for disseminating research and academic advances, and that science-based learning games will become the effort’s leading ambassador. “We are the innovators who are prepared to take chances in exploring and realizing these opportunities,” he says.