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'Cookies' and 'Crumbles' help kids realize their appetite for science

After helping Cookies, the virtual cat, regain his energy with a diet of healthy foods and exercise, fourth- and fifth-grade “veterinarians” have a new patient on their hands—Crumbles.

By applying what they’ve learned from Cookies’ case, more than 500 students across Georgia are using their knowledge of the body’s organ systems to help treat Crumbles who has Type 2 diabetes.

It’s been four years since assistant research scientist Georgia Hodges first developed the concept for Virtual Vet, an interactive digital learning game for elementary students. Funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the game aims to improve students’ knowledge of science by engaging them in a virtual world where they can practice solving real-world problems.

“We have a couple of main goals, but we want kids to have the knowledge to make healthy choices,” said Hodges, who leads a team of researchers in the College of Education’s department of mathematics and science education. “We have them do the things that scientists do—they analyze and interpret data.

Last spring, Virtual Vet—which was designed and animated by digital specialists Alex Turbyfield and Dave Nix—received the 2018 Bronze Medal from the International Serious Play Award Program for promoting higher-level thinking in elementary students.

Hodges’ game places elementary students right on UGA’s campus. After creating their own in-game characters, students, who play as vet assistants, are presented with Cookies’ symptoms in a treatment room modeled after UGA’s vet teaching hospital.

“Each chapter is called musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and endocrine,” said co-researcher Sandhya Krishnan, a second-year doctoral student. “We don’t use alternative names for these systems. We’re challenging and treating elementary school students as though they can achieve this standard.”

Since its creation in 2014, the game has undergone several iterations to refine and adjust not only software and gameplay elements, but also the way questions are presented to students.

Based on pre- and post-test results, the team can determine which questions and concepts students are struggling with and if these issues have been successfully addressed by the end of their journey with Cookies and Crumbles. As a result of these improvements and a focused storyline, students who play the game often outperform those who engage in hands-on learning.

“There’s an element of inquiry and hands-on in general that is difficult to implement in elementary schools,” said co-researcher Kayla Flanagan, a second-year doctoral student. “The game provides this context that can hopefully provide similar authentic practices in science where students are collecting, analyzing and interpreting data, but in a way that can minimize some of those difficulties for elementary school teachers.”

In the future, the team hopes to incorporate Virtual Vet into the science curriculum, so more underserved students can see themselves in the field, while simultaneously learning about healthy behaviors, Type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses.

On the assessment side, teachers are just as involved in the digital learning experience. Hodges’ team is working on creating a system that allows educators to evaluate student responses in-game to enhance the learning process. As a result, they can see which students are struggling and where extra support is needed.

This fall, the team will continue testing the game and working with elementary teachers across Georgia to examine if different implementation techniques in the classroom affect student learning.

“The game already gives support and scaffolds a lot of the learning, but the teacher can also add to that,” said Krishnan. “Because teachers know their students best, we want to make sure that the last bastions are basically the teachers, not us.”

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602