The WhyPower Project: Crossing Games to Standards

By Cliff Zintgraff, DaVinci Minds

This is the first of three posts about WhyPower, a Wave II NGLC grantee focused on putting virtual worlds in middle school classrooms to deliver integrated learning of math, science and career education.  This first post will introduce our project, our product and the ways we set the stage to build virtual world content that crosses to academic standards.  In the next two posts, we'll discuss how to maintain focus on academic standards during game design and development, and how to give teachers tools to know, track, analyze and report on academic achievement in game-driven curriculum.

Background:   WhyPower

WhyPower is a program and curriculum that delivers integrated math, science and career education to middle school students.  The platform for delivery is Whyville, the learning-based virtual world for teens and tweens.  Founded in 1999, Whyville has served over 7 million users with activities in math, science, art, economics, journalism and much more.  Whyville has over fifty sponsored activities, each driven by learning goals.  With the development of WhyPower, Whyville now has a virtual power plant worthy of powering the Bioplex, Akbar’s Face Mall, the Face Parts Factory, PlaneWorks, and the many other places in Whyville that need reliable (we hope), inexpensive (sometimes), and clean (when we can afford it) virtual energy.  Make your choice!  Virtual coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar energy are available to keep Whyville on the move.  While students make their choice, they learn about fractions, ratios and proportions, about the science of energy, and about technical and professional energy careers.  Check out our web site for more information.

Games that Teach Standards:  Setting the Stage

Creating a game that is fun, reflective of the real world, consistent over time, challenging, multiplayer, and integrated with a host world’s social structure is a challenge.  Whyville’s simulation-based approach to gaming (Whyville is a dynamic world where outcomes are not predestined) adds complexity.  To then add standards-based math content, science content and career lessons simply piles on the difficulty.  Yet for those of us who believe that inquiry-based, constructivist approaches lead to more learning, better retention, and greater ability to apply lessons learned, the climb is worth the effort.  In fact, the “standards” viewed properly are not more complexity, but rather grounding of the effort that creates relevance and intrinsic motivation.  Even more, standards with a theme make the development effort relevant and intrinsically motivating for instructional designers, game developers, K-12 content experts, school administrators, practicing teachers, and all involved in requirements, design, development and rollout.  When well articulated, the standards become the theme that binds the elements of the project, creating common vision. This visionary benefit also leads to a practical outcome.  To see curriculum used in formal classrooms, the modern reality is that content must connect to relevant standards.  The standards ground the content, provide vision, and facilitate formal classroom use.

Identify Content

One way to apply games to standards is to take an existing game and find the standards it already teaches.  That is legitimate, but it was not our approach.  Having already built WhyPower “V1” with emphasis on science and career content, our NGLC proposal emphasized teaching “the math that 8th graders struggle with”−fractions, ratios and proportions−to help 8th graders become high school-ready.  We knew the content we wanted to teach.  We also had a guiding theme for WhyPower from V1: making smart, grounded choices between coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar energy.  (Want to know more about this?  Visit Power Across Texas’ WhyPower pages:  WhyPower Interactive GameCandidates, Policies and Power Sources.)  At this point, DaVinci Minds brought in a math content expert with constructivist leanings (and robotics competition experience) and we identified standards, debated their importance, and made a list.  For thoroughness’ sake, we identified a few potential game scenarios.

Know Your Story, Tell a New Story

Isolated educational standards are boring.  Stories themed around standards are cool, engaging, and create vision and relevance.  Once we identified content−once we were grounded−creativity began.  Everyone involved suggested ideas large and small that could be the storyboard for NGLC WhyPower content.  New themes were validated against WhyPower’s overall theme, types of power sources.  Being the game experts, the Numedeon staff (Numedeon is the developer of Whyville) suggested potential engaging activities.  At one conference call late in this process, we had three DaVinci Minds’ staff members, four Numedeon staff members, and our math content expert together in GotoMeeting talking the scenarios out.  Our internal evaluator was not with us live, but was connected through regular email and phone communication.  We settled on some ideas.  And then …

Creativity with Benefits

And then the activity as designed seemed to be missing something to hold it together.  We needed a way to tie the standards, the storyboard ideas, the larger WhyPower theme, and even the practical engineering limits of funding, schedule, and performance all together.  Without that, the next moment is not possible.  In a small three-person discussion it “became clear” that a motif of operating the physical power plant could be the unifying theme that provides story, structure, direction and motivation for the activity.  Imagine students operating a power plant console.  Imagine them using sliders to control pie charts and graphs that change dynamically under students’ control.  Consider that such an approach is visual, kinetic, exploratory, and connected to the standards we wish to teach and the understanding we wish students to gain before they enter high school.  And this new motif fits perfectly with the larger theme of choosing between alternative power sources.

Note that this final step happened with a small group.  It is important that a few key people understand all the issues, and make final decisions about direction.  The effort proceeds from vision (one or a few people) to idea generation and analysis (many people) to final decisions (made by a core group, in light of all opportunities and constraints).

The Stage is Set

With the storyboard established, we were ready to proceed.  We had involved the instructional designers, game designers, game developers, K-12 content expert, and internal evaluator.  The early process started and ended with standards, with the final “small decision group” including all who had identified the math standards.  A dynamic process had completed where game designers suggested approaches, and creativity happened in an environment where practical limitations were understood and immediately considered.  We had a story with standards defined.  The ensuing requirements flowed out naturally.  We were ready to build a game, and to build curriculum for deploying the game in middle school classrooms.

Next in the series (coming soon)Keeping Academic Focus during the Give-and-Take of Game Development