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The WhyPower Project: What We Built, Outcomes, and Big Ideas to Make It Better

By: Cliff Zintgraff, DaVinci Minds

In our first post, we introduced the WhyPower project and its delivery of integrated math, science and career education.  We talked about how we ran a fundamentally creative process and used academic standards to ground the early design process.  In the second post, we talked briefly about how we implemented WhyPower, and how we came to understand that academic standards are the seeds of big ideas that we need to recapture and highlight in curriculum.  In this final post, we’ll expand on what we implemented for our NGLC grant project, talk about our outcomes, and dream a little about what these blog posts have taught us about improving WhyPower.

What We Built

When we landed with NGLC, we already had integrated math, science and career education curriculum in the first version of WhyPower.  We had single- and multi-player virtual world activities where students built green homes, selecting their appliances and materials; managed a power plant for a day; placed wind turbines and solar panels around Whyville; and ran power lines using Ohm’s law.  Students earned technical and professional career badges for completing the games and simulations.  A theme of our activities was large-scale power sources—coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar energy—and how to choose the right energy sources for communities.  Our Texas partner, Power Across Texas, inspired our approach for this work.  They are helping Texas make good energy choices.                                                                                                                                                 

For our new activity, we decided to let Whyvillians select the coming week’s power mix in Whyville!  Students would use control panels to play with different power mix scenarios.  We would lead them through three analysis steps (as shown in the pictures):

  1. explore power mix scenarios (how many coal, how many natural gas, etc.);
  1. transpose nine weeks of Whyville power history data onto a bar graph, comparing the possible scenarios to Whyville’s history of power usage; and
  1. consider graphs on cost, emissions, and land use. 

The control panels would give students the sense of controlling a power plant--as if they were sitting at the power console!  The activity would simultaneously be visual, kinesthetic, and mathematical, not to mention educational as they learned the science of sources of energy.    There is no right answer—like in the real world, economics, quality-of-life (who wants smog floating through Whyville outdoor spaces?), values, and even whimsical motivations of students affect outcomes!  Interestingly, Whyvillians have most often chosen the clean energy scenarios.



In the midst of this, we ask students questions and analyze their activity.  We expose them to standards-based topics in middle school math.  We give teachers tools to examine student progress and class-wide progress against the standards we teach in WhyPower.  This picture shows both Common Core mathematics cross-match, and cross-match to Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) from our Texas grant efforts.

Research Outcomes:  We Moved the Undecideds!

Those of us working with NGLC believe in technology’s impact on education and the pedagogies that support it.  That said, the research on constructivist learning has been mixed in the past.  Research like that from Clark (1983, 1994), Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006), and Mayer (2004) has questioned whether technology and constructivist pedagogies really impact education.  On the other hand, research like that from Kozma (1994), Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, & Chinn (2007), Geier, Blumenfeld, Marx, Krajcik, Fishman, Soloway, & Clay-Chambers (2008), Horwitz, Neumann, & Schwartz (1996) and Warren, Dondlinger, & Barab (2008) report benefits from constructivist pedagogies and technology solutions.  Where is the truth?

To learn about the impact of WhyPower on student outcomes, then, we conducted a full internal evaluation (using an external evaluator, but working for DaVinci Minds).  External evaluation results are pending, but we share here some of what we are finding.  We had 813 students participate, and 624 complete evaluation forms for analysis.  This happened across 12 schools in three Texas school districts.  Among the challenges were varying depths of implementation, varying schedules, related classes running (as they should) in parallel with our intervention, varying buy-in by teachers, and a few technical problems with data collection limiting some analysis of our results.  Our intervention ran near the end of the school year, with 5-7 class periods often spread over 4-8 weeks.  These complications limit the conclusions we can draw and the root causes we can speculate on, but we were able to collect data on student beliefs and attitudes pre- and post-intervention, analogous teacher surveys, student math abilities, and a purposeful sample of end-of-class deeper learning competency worksheets.

Not all our data was “inspiring.”  In fact, overall our students seemed to slightly lose interest in math!  This is not what we wanted to hear!  However, a deeper analysis yielded an interesting observation.  When we removed students who were already strongly set in their opinions about math, the intervention showed substantial and strongly statistically significant movement in the remaining students’ perceptions of math as relevant, and of math as important for future careers.  This is even more interesting in light of some research findings that suggest immersive environments like Whyville work best for advanced students (Moos, 2011; Chandler, 2009; Dillon & Gabbard, 1998).  It seems our best impact was on students who were undecided.  We find this an exciting result!  This seems intuitively correct to us, that undecided students would be moved by the relevance they see in an immersive environment.  It shows us where can make an impact now!  We also showed substantial and statistically significant impact on interest in STEM careers, for all students.  Many cautions are in order, but these are findings we can learn from and build on.  We continue to analyze educational outcomes, especially from a large amount of video that we are “coding” to look for deeper learning happening with WhyPower students.

Making WhyPower Better!

We have learned some things from reflecting on our efforts that give us ideas how to make WhyPower better.  I think the most important is seeing academic standards as the core of big ideas.  We tend to view standards as the thing that we have to do.  We need a way to measure ourselves, and compare ourselves against others, whether we like it or not.  Since we have to define standards, we might as well make the best standards we can.  There will always be imperfections in standards.  There will always be an administrative angle and a political angle to their definition and implementation (any questions about this, read what’s happening in Australia–sound familiar?).  A more inspiring way to view them, though, is as seeds of big ideas.  We need to do a better job of keeping the big ideas front and center.  We need to do a better job equipping those on the front lines, our teachers, to know what the big ideas are, to know how to best guide students to their recognition and understanding, and to leverage the intrinsic motivation students feel when they discover big ideas on their own.  Some ideas for WhyPower 2.0!

Check out our updated grantee page at http://nextgenlearning.org/grantee/davinci-minds.

References: Full citations of reference made in this post are available upon request. Please contact the author at cliffz@davinci-minds.com.

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