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Making science purrfectly fun

Kristen B. Morales

January 22, 2015

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cats

Cookies is feeling a little sluggish. The cat isn't as spry as sibling Cream, and so their owner has to take them to the veterinarian.

Except in this case, the vet is a third-grader and the cats are part of a virtual world created to teach science. Led by Georgia Hodges, assistant research scientist in the University of Georgia College of Education's Department of Mathematics and Science Education, a team of researchers, digital animators and teachers are creating this world thanks to a recent $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Over the next five years, Hodges says, the team will develop a storyline based on the tale of two cats. One is overweight while the other isn't, and they lead students on a path of discovery to diagnose the problem. More than a computer game, the software uses the interactivity of touch screens and the latest research on technology-based learning to guide students through the diagnosis.

Along the way, children learn scientific methods in a fun environment.

"Our team is leveraging the best technology to create a learning environment where children are challenged to critically think, by applying the scientific method to help save a very lovable cat named Cookies," says Hodges. "The big idea is that we can challenge students to apply mathematical thinking and use the scientific method through use of an interactive, engaging platform."

Cookies and Cream also help illustrate the effect of Type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses, Hodges says, and children learn the science behind these health issues.

"We believe that kids are smart and capable of learning conceptually rich science," she adds. "We hypothesize that children will make different health choices when equipped with this knowledge. With this project, we're giving kids a really fun way to learn about Type 2 diabetes."

The animals are a key part of this process. Hodges and her team built the program around cats with help from small animal vet and UGA professor Cynthia Ward, who also has a passion for curing Type 2 diabetes.

"Really cute kitty cats," Hodges says.

Only just a few months into the research, the team has nearly finished a semester's worth of virtual visits with Cookies and Cream. The first version of the game will make its debut in February at the Georgia Science Teachers Association conference before it begins its first round of testing and revisions. The remainder of the grant will be spent further refining and testing the software.

Hodges says the aim is for students to spend time with the cats and engage in the problem-solving process.

"I don't want this to happen over a week," she says. The software will eventually take children through every body system within the context of a cat, while learning how to make the cat better. "You learn that if you change your behavior, you change your outcome."

The cat animations, along with the entire virtual world, were created by Athens-based digital artists Dave Nix and Alex Turbyfield. Turbyfield, a recent UGA graduate, has created animated content for the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, theater productions and advertising. Nix recently relocated to Athens from Los Angeles after 18 years in the movie industry, most recently working for DreamWorks SKG. He worked on the animation of feature films such as "Shrek" and "Madagascar."

While the cats' big eyes may recall the Puss in Boots character from "Shrek," the artists are careful to stay true to the science and actual movements of the cats. For example, in one lesson the cats jump and students evaluate the difference. These movements are based on real cats jumping in Ward's office at the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine.

This software builds on research from an earlier virtual world created for high school students by Dr. J. Steve Oliver and Dr.Jim Moore, called Ideal Biology NIH. The previous software includes case studies from a range of science-related professions and challenges students to investigate and analyze their results.

Self-evaluation, Hodges says, reinforces what the students learn while encouraging them to dig deeper.

From that project, Hodges says they found great science curriculum has a story that engages children and is written by scientists, from their perspective. Also, the researchers needed to involve teachers in the process, both in designing the virtual world and also making sure the content and questions were appropriate for the grade level. That's why, during the five years of the SYSTEMS grant, more than 1,800 students and 27 third-grade teachers will test it and offer feedback.

This research-based approach is key, Hodges says, because many "educational" games for children are too heavy on entertainment, while many others have great content delivered in a way that's not much different than a two-dimensional textbook. Having Hollywood-caliber artists on the project helps keep that balance.

In Hollywood, "it's all about coming up with an amazing, heartwarming story," says Nix. "Here, we're dealing with real research. So there's a lot more back-and-forth about how to present it."

For example, even something as simple as a camera angle can change the content.

"You go into a movie to be entertained. You use our product to be educated. The education has to be the star of the show," says Turbyfield. "Because of that, you would handle certain animations differently. In the entertainment industry, you might have a very different camera angle that doesn't offer a lot of educational information."

Peggy McKay, a graduate student working on the project, says it uses technology to level the playing field when it comes to science education. A curriculum that's more accessible to students means a larger number of students will be successful in science classes in middle and high school.

"I feel like this project is changing the game of education so more kids can play," she says." Inclusion and access for children is very important to me. This project is about leveraging technology to do that."

The end result, Hodges adds, is a learning platform that can be expanded to fifth and seventh grades. Each year builds upon the skills of the previous one, and students stay engaged in science.

"We're trying to not take the student out of the experience. We don't want it to be an electronic textbook," she says. "And with this age group, the whole point is to engage early. The whole point is to get kids engaged and learning."