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One of first large units designed in the Quest Atlantis project (see QuestAtlantis.org), Taiga was developed to better understand the power of videogame methodologies and technologies for learning water quality concepts.

Taiga Overview

One of the most researched units of the Quest Atlantis project (see QuestAtlantis.org), Taiga was developed to better understand the power of videogame methodologies and technologies for transforming school curriculum. Rather than designing a curricular unit about water quality in which students were simply told the key terms in an abstracted manner, Taiga was a proof-of-concept demonstrating that one could develop a videogame to support learning deep science. And while we hoped to situate student understandings in the context of a particular world, the iterations of the curriculum allowed us to also ensure that students learn concepts in such a way that they can transfer what they learned to other contexts.

Taiga is one unit/world situated in the Quest Atlantis videogame, which includes many different worlds focused on different content areas (see QuestAtlantis.org). The Taiga unit involves the exploration of virtual park, Taiga, a state park with a river running through it.

As part of the game storyline, the stocks of fish in the river are plummeting and the future of the park is at risk. There are several groups of people who live in or use Taiga. Each of them might be responsible for the problems with the river. Players work as a Field Investigator for Park Ranger Mals Bartle to collect evidence about this growing catastrophe.

Players login with an avatar and then use their keyboard to move around the virtual park. As they explore the park, they meet and interview different game characters, known as non-player characters (NPCs), all who have different roles in the park. For example, they will meet some NPCs who work for the fictional logging company, others who are farmers, and still others who work for the sport fisher company. After interviewing these different characters and finding out their perspectives on the problem, players eventually collect and test water samples from different places in the park to gain some hard data from which to verify or bring into doubt the various opinions. Questers then propose different solutions and then travel in time to observe the consequences of different solutions. Afterwords they give advice to Lan, a Council Chief from Atlantis about solving similar problems in that world.

This unit lets students participate in extended scientific inquiry around complex socio-scientific problems. In contrast to textbook treatments of scientific inquiry as isolated, positivist investigations, Taiga helps students appreciate that many of the most important scientific problems involve complex interactions between different social groups. Players come to deeply appreciate that many solutions to scientific problems present new problems that must also be considered, and that many solutions require both evidence and compromise. It is these rich understandings that are advocated by the National Standards published by the National Research Council and the National Science Teachers Association.

Pressures to formalize all school content to facilitate high stakes achievement testing have pushed every state to define very specific content standards. These standards are negotiated with various stakeholders, and the voices of educators, science educators, and scientists are often be drowned out by corporate interests and political pressure.

The Taiga curriculum was aligned to multiple standards found in the Indiana 5th grade science standards, for example: 5.1.6: Explain how the solution to one problem, such as the use of pesticides in agriculture or the use of dumps for waste disposal, may create other problems. And while the standard might seem like a laudable goal for sixth graders, many argue that standardized test items designed to measure achievement don't assess the depth of understanding intended in developing these standards. Under NCLB, schools are held strictly accountable for performance on test featuring such items. Principals and teachers are under enormous pressures to raise scores on tests featuring such items. This compels teachers to simply train students to answer such items correctly. Not only is there little attention to the deeper understanding meant by the targeted standard, there is little consideration of what science education researchers mean by socio-scientific inquiry (described more in the next section).

In the first Mission, Questers first get a letter from Chief Ranger Bartle. Ranger Bartle explains that the fish population in the river is declining dramatically. He asks the students to work as field investigators to help figure out what is causing the fish decline. Questers find their way around the park as they speak to various Taiga stakeholders about their use of the river; these include farmers, loggers, commercial fishing outfitters, and tourists. Each set of stakeholders defends their actions as essential to the park and suggests that others are responsible for the fish decline. One student’s comments to her teacher: “Yesterday and earlier this morning, I talked to them and—well, I didn’t really talk to them, we were just having a discussion ... They’re saying many different things and they all know that you’ve submitted the quest.”

Questers are provided with a paper field notebook in which to keep track of who they have spoken to and what their opinions were. Starting in Mission 1, the classroom teachers are encouraged to foster productive classroom conversations around Taiga. The Taiga Teacher Unit Guide includes classroom discussion prompts and a reflective activity designed to help students learn the difference between facts and opinions.

The stakeholders in Taiga include:

  • Norbe is the leader of the Mulu, who raise animals and crops and catch fish in the river. He believes the loggers have been cutting down more trees lately
  • Lisa works for the logging company that is the major source of revenue for the park. Believes that the logging company is doing nothing wrong, and is providing jobs for the local community.
  • Markeda is the co-owner of the fishing company that pays a fee to the park and is responsible for bringing in the most visitors. She believes the Mulu are using illegal gill-nets to overfish the river.
  • Maria is a visitor. She notices that there are fewer trees in the park than in previous years
  • Sara is a visitor. Her boyfriend works for the logging company. SHe believes the logging company is using the park responsibly.

Central to the experience of Taiga is to engage elementary- and middle-school students in socio-scientific inquiry. For us, socio-scientific inquiry includes three core components: narrative engagement (“context”), inscription construction/deconstruction (core “resource”), and scientific inquiry (core “practice”).

Troy Sadler is one of the leading researchers of socio-scientific inquiry. Click the video below to hear some of his comments.

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