Interactive game teaches too

WASHINGTON — A mystery is brewing
at the Smithsonian Institution, and the scientists there want the help of the nation’s
middle-schoolers to solve it.

Children and teens ages 11 to 14
can get involved in uncovering the mystery in Vanished, an online science-fiction
interactive mystery event that starts 4 April. Kids can sign up for the event,
conducted by the Smithsonian and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at

The mystery, which is unveiled during
the course of the eight-week event, involves a fictitious environmental

 Each week, participants will get clues online
that will allow them to come up with hypotheses about the cause that can be
tested, debated and refined.

“Kids from all across the country
can work together to form a scientific community just like you would in the
real world and try to solve this puzzle,” says MIT’s Caitlin Feeley.


Good game, good science
Vanished has a lot in common with alternate-reality games. “Good gameplay is
really science,” says Scot Osterweil, creative director of MIT’s Education
Arcade, which develops and researches games for learning. “You come into a situation
that is chaotic and it doesn’t make any sense. You observe. You begin to probe
and you test. Then you get some feedback. You form a hypothesis and refine your
response, and you do more tests and eventually you solve the problem — in any
good game. But we thought, why not take it into a larger sphere, a social
activity that happens around an alternate-reality game?”

As part of the event, players get
an assist from real-world Smithsonian scientists in areas such as forensic
anthropology, paleobiology and entomology. “Part of what made us think kids
wanted to do this was the popularity of CSI and Bones and the fact there
clearly is the search for that kind of problem-solving,” Osterweil says.

Scientists will have videoconferences
online, and participants can send them questions that will be answered in real
time. Smithsonian researchers are keen to participate, not only to expose
children to science but also to serve as role models, says Elizabeth Cottrell,
a geologist and director of the Smithsonian’s global volcanism program.

“It’s an event that doesn’t involve
the kind of middle-school science which I think is tragic, like memorising
words in boldface type, the definition of ‘mitochondria.’ That is not what
science is at all,” says Cottrell, one of the scientists who will interact with
the players. With this project, “the kids are actually doing science. They are
the investigator and they are going to have the ‘Ah, I get it,’ and that is so
exciting, to give kids the ability to have that moment for themselves.”



Kids will be asked to collect real
data, such as documenting a species in their neighbourhood. They can upload
pictures to the website and compare their finds with field guides. Some players
near 20 or so Smithsonian-affiliated museums can find clues inside. “A kid in
Kansas could go to the Kansas Cosmosphere (in Hutchinson) and bring back
information on space exploration, and a kid in North Carolina could go to the
Museum of Natural Sciences (in Raleigh), walk through their incredible diorama
and bring back information on how a lost species massively affected an entire
ecosystem,” Feeley says.

Clues can be gathered from several
games that will be available on the site, too. As players participate, they
will gain achievement points, just as in video games. “If you are comfortable
discussing things, you can discuss things,” she says. “If you want to work
independently, you can do things like the games.”

The event, made possible by a grant
from the National Science Foundation, helps the Smithsonian achieve its
mission, too, says Claudine Brown, the institution’s assistant secretary for

“If we are indeed the
nation’s museum, we are really clear about the fact that there are some people
who come here once in a lifetime and some people who never come to this
institution,” she says. “We are living in this great moment where technology
will allow us to reach people who might never come.”


Children and teens ages 11 to 14 can get involved in uncovering the mystery in Vanished, an online science-fiction interactive mystery event.
Photo: File