Personal computers were just becoming more widely available to the public when I was in elementary school. At home, my brothers and I were addicted to playing a fire truck-cat game we had on our clunker of a PC. In middle school, our computer lab got the hip upgrade to first generation iMacs. Those gumdrop shaped and colored computers from the late 90s were mesmerizing, even if their function left something to be desired. Their games were of course restricted by the school’s network administrator. A computer game could only be a distraction, certainly not educational, right?
Fast forward a little over a decade and we have Discover Water: The Project WET Foundation’s online site dedicated to educating students about our most precious natural resource. I’ve explored Discover Water quite a bit and am confident that if it were available on those first generation iMacs back in middle school, teachers and administrators would have eagerly promoted the science-based website and the multitude of games and activities it offers as an exception to the computer game ban.
Educators today would (and do) feel the same. The Discover Water pilot involved 59 teachers and 3,746 students from schools across the United States. The site covers water-related topics ranging from the water cycle and oceans to wise water use and watersheds. Each topic includes fun games and activities, an approach to learning known as “gamification education.” Discover Water—and all of Project WET’s materials—represent a shift in our approach to education.
Young people today are increasingly raised in a bubble of 21st century technology and we would be doing future generations a great disservice if our educational systems remained stuck in the 20th Century. I’m hard-pressed to come up with a profession that does not use technology directly or indirectly, but I can think of many examples of educators embracing technology to relate with and encourage their students. For brevity, I focus on one shining example: my high school AP biology teacher.
Bozeman High School’s Paul Andersen is one of the most fun and interactive teachers I’ve been fortunate enough to have in school. Last year, he was Montana’s 2011 Teacher of the Year and made it to the top four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award. The zig to his zag? Andersen used Moodle to transform his Bozeman High School science classroom into “Biohazard 5,” an alternate reality game (ARG) consisting of video podcasts, hundreds of science questions and quizzes, fun activities, and levels with points leading to high scorers and grades. Andersen’s YouTube channel, BozemanBiology, is also a hit, with over 200 videos and more than 4 million channel views.
On his website, Andersen points out how traditional classrooms keep every student at the same level. This prevents exceptional students from learning more (boring) and leaves students that need more time to master material behind (frustrating). Biohazard 5, however, allowed students to learn at their own pace and tap into their full potential. Incorporating technology into education presents a whole new set of challenges, of course, but that is not an excuse for ignoring the role of technology in the lives of today’s and tomorrow’s young people.
Which brings me back to Project WET’s Discover Water. Like Andersen’s classroom leveling system, Project WET plans to add a badge system to the website so students and teachers can acquire and document learning in an individualized, self-paced manner. Early this year, Discover Water made it to the third level in the Digital Media and Learning, Badges for Lifelong Learning competition sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. The primary goal of Discover Water’s badge system is to give players—whether in a formal classroom setting or learning just for fun—credit for their efforts and a sense of accomplishment.
Both Discover Water and Biohazard 5 stand as success stories where education standards and technology can merge and teachers are afforded new ways to access student learning.