National Academy of Sciences

Second on the schedule for Monday morning was a visit to the National Academy of Sciences. Established in 1863 by an Act of Congress that was signed by Abraham Lincoln, the NAS is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars, 500 hundred of whom are Nobel laureates! The Academy’s mission is to provide ‘independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology’ and the building we visited houses also the National Research Council (est. 1916) the National Academy of Engineering (est. 1964) and the Institute of Medicine (est. 1970)

Following an overview of the NAS given by Jay Labov we heard a short presentation from Margaret Hilton who shared the findings of a report she co-edited with Margaret A. Honey called Learning: Computer Games, Simulations, and Education and published by the National Research Council. The study sees games and simulations as lying along a continuum but having slightly different emphases: both are based on computer models and allow user interaction. Simulations allow users to explore the implications of modifying parameters, while games incorporate goals and rules and provide feedback.  Players’ actions affect the state of play.

The study’s initial hypothesis was that games had the potential to support science learning and allow learners to see and manipulate representations of complex natural phenomena. The findings concerning simulations showed promising evidence that well-designed simulations enhance understanding of targeted concepts. They found moderate evidence that simulations motivate interest in science and science learning.

Margaret highlighted a number of examples including PhET, Surge and Whyville. In Whyville, for example, players (whyvillians) can get struck by a nasty case of whypox. The symptoms of this are that the avatar’s skin becomes covered in horrible red pustules and they sneeze so much their online chat gets interrupted as words are replaced by ‘achoo’. The children playing the game wanted to recover from this in order to continue to socialize and chat more freely.

The authors found that while games had enormous potential in assessment this would not be useful until tasks were embedded effectively and unobtrusively. Margaret noted that the research on how to effectively assess learning in games and how to use the information to support learning is still in its infancy so we can expect the NAS to continue to explore this area.

I plan to order the report for the library in Maynooth and I look forward to reading it in more detail. It is also wonderful to have discovered the rich source of material in Science development and education that can be found on the various sections of the NAS site not to mention having had the honour of meeting Margaret and Jay  in person.

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