An Interview with:
Caroline Davies, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Director of Environmental Studies Program, Department
of Geosciences, University of Missouri–Kansas City
Iris Totten, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Geology, Kansas State University
Donna Russell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, School of Education, University of Missouri–Kansas
It is well known that the United States faces a crisis in science education,
particularly among minorities and underrepresented groups. The GeoWorlds Project
is an innovative new program funded by the Kauffman Foundation. It integrates
collaborative virtual learning environments with problem-based pedagogy. It is
designed, using the Second Life immersive education platform, to engage urban
students in Earth science while enhancing their problem solving skills and
content knowledge. This project, which is being piloted in Kansas City area
schools, focuses on developing the potential of urban minority and
underrepresented groups in urban and suburban schools. These schools represent
51 percent of all students in the United States. (NEAR, 1998).
Problem-based learning in the sciences has been demonstrated to be a
successful educational approach to increase knowledge level and student
engagement. The teacher/facilitators in each classroom are being trained in the
problem-based approach where Earth science content is based in the national and
state science education standards. However, the power of collaborative virtual
learning to engage students and increase their problem solving skills and
content knowledge has not been fully researched. This project offers one
opportunity to do that type of research. The integration of these tools has
enormous potential to increase interest in the sciences and for education
The following interview with the developers of this innovative new curriculum
offers insight into how GeoWorlds uses bold new ways to engage students in
learning Earth science.
How does this project provide new ways for students to learn geoscience
Russell: The GeoWorlds project is foremost an examination of the
impact of virtual learning environments on higher order thinking skills of urban
high school students. In order to evaluate any impact on learning, we first had
to build a problem-based virtual curriculum around Earth science content that is
engaging to high school students. This was our focus the first year. The
scenarios and virtual simulations in GeoWorlds provide students with
opportunities to explore science-based virtual worlds and conduct problem-based
learning activities, either as individuals or as group activities.
How does the program work?
Davies: The first island, TerraWorld, presents 3D visualizations
of the major characteristics of four specific geologic time periods: Cambrian,
Permian, Cretaceous, and Eocene. These scenarios provide, through their virtual
visualizations, chronologic position in geologic time, environmental
information, dominant life forms, location of the continents, and critical
changes or adaptations in life history. Each of the four scenarios has
interactive exploration and knowledge building built in, as well as larger
picture relational understanding between the scenarios. These relational pieces
include having students learn to recognize and order the events of geologic time
by life form development, environmental development, or critical life history
As students travel through the scenarios, they identify organisms, learn to
classify organisms into taxonomic hierarchies, and learn the associated
environmental characteristics, such as oxygen levels, ozone availability, etc.
These activities build the foundational knowledge they will use at the end of
the scenarios to identify unknown species and make correlations between species
and environmental changes. In the process, students are exposed to specific
Earth science information such as the importance of the Burgess Shale, the
development of an oxygen-dominated atmosphere, and the development of land
plants and animals.
How is this different from a teacher-led lesson?
Totten: Students explore the 3D scenarios following their own
direction, but with set goals to attain specific pieces of information that will
contribute to the whole understanding. They can work in groups that require
sharing of information and developing new groupings of information. They develop
complex linkages through randomly encountered information. The information comes
in a wide variety of forms—written explanation, visual, short videos, touching,
and clicking for data.
What are the challenges you have overcome in building such an environment
in Second Life?
Davies: The challenges to building the GeoWorlds first island,
TerraWorld, can be broken down into two components—virtual curriculum
development and technological.
GeoWorlds uses an immersive environment where students learn by having their avatars explore different aspects of the program.
Totten: In developing this unique collaborative virtual learning
curriculum and environment, we first encountered our own boundaries of how
curriculum is developed. In a traditional setting, one develops the learning
goals and outcomes first, then the specific course layout and classroom
activities and assessments that support those goals. However, because we were
new to virtual environments, we did not initially know the full range of
capabilities of the environment. Therefore, we spent much time initially
designing the island layout and “landscaping” the curriculum. We were building
from the island up versus designing the curriculum from the goals down. To some
extent, this process was necessary, but with additional scenarios and experience
gained, we can now design virtual curriculum from the goals down.
The second biggest challenge has been translating our curriculum ideas into
virtual curriculum, not just a three-dimensional rendering of classroom active
learning modules. As we move from designing active classroom curriculum to
virtual, we have become much less linear in our concepts (difficult also because
geology conceptually is very linear) and much more network, linkage based.
Students can move throughout the scenarios in random and unpredicted patterns;
they attain information in more random sequences, and it requires that they make
strong linkages between this information.
What types of technical challenges did you encounter?
Russell: Initially we had to address our own abilities to
function in Second Life, so we had sufficient knowledge about the environment to
be able to better dialog with our design team. Experiencing this learning
curve first-hand is important since most of the end-users will be teachers and
students with no background in Second Life, and among urban students, many will
have had little computer experience.
In any technical design there are always communication issues to overcome
when you have several very different technical fields conversing. In our case,
Earth science, they were virtual design coding and curriculum assessment. These
were worked out in weekly meetings.
What is it like to work with Second Life, especially as it was experiencing a
phenomenal rate of growth and expansion?
Davies: There have been technological issues working with a
company, Linden Lab (LL), that experienced 400 percent growth in one year.
Initially it took four months to get our first island established. There was
much confusion with LL about the purchasing process of the island. The
organization has since established a concierge service just for education
We also began to encounter with our first live student demonstrations the
technological challenges of integrating virtual curriculum into urban schools.
Schools have varying degrees of hardware, software, and support. On the Second
Life Teen Grid, we have built in firewall barriers that keep anyone not involved
with the program from gaining access to the island. We can see these will be
challenges to be addressed early in the coming year as we move to full
implementation in several schools.
Despite the early stages of our project, the response we had from a school
district science coordinator and its head technology director was tremendously
positive. They are actively seeking out participation in the project.