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Gallas, who's done some research with "River City," put it like this: "If you're motivated to spend a lot of time doing something, that's where the learning happens. If you look at snowboarders or skateboarders--these may be kids that don't do well in traditional school environments--if they want to learn a trick, they go through a hundred to 200 iterations to do it."
Now the Harvard team is researching whether the local success of "River City" will carry over to a broad number of schools. Funded with $4 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, the program has been implemented in seven states. Last year, it was introduced to about 100 teachers and 10,000 students across the United States, and was found to work well with large school districts such as Miami Dade and Milwaukee. In the next two years, the Harvard team hopes to bring "River City" to other districts, including those in Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
Whyville--the anti MySpace?
Numedeon was founded in 1999 by a biology professor at CalTech, along with two PhD students. The three, including Numedeon president Sun, wanted to revamp the way science was taught in schools, shifting it to inquiry-based education, in which educators construct engaging experiments to teach science through interaction, rather than through books. Whyville launched in 1999.
The community creates activities that simulate questions in science, such as how do ice skaters spin so fast? Whyville's Spin Lab lets kids figure out the answer. NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab has sponsored WASA, a center where kids can become certified space engineers. Inside a virtual lab, zero gravity conditions teach kids to throw projectiles in order to move, in the process teaching them about Newton's Third Law: Every action has a reaction. This summer Whyville will add a spectrograph game that will let kids analyze a specimen like carbon or sodium.
The University of Texas has also sponsored a program in Whyville, called WhyEat, to teach kids about nutrition in an age of rampant child obesity. Kids who play must choose nutritious foods, or they could get ill.
As for red tides, children at the beach can visit Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute on Whyville--sponsored by the real Oceanographic Institute--to learn about the algae outbreaks and what they can do to fix their warm-weather hangout.
A major side effect of Whyville is a thriving business economy that's created wealthy citizens.
Whyville kids love face decorations and other avatar accessories enough that they can pay a clam fee to create and produce a decoration or accessory of their own to sell to other kids. In order to do that, children must factor in profit margins and learn about advertising and marketing to promote their stores. The wealthiest kids, with millions of clams, have developed a hot-selling item. Kids also trade goods like furniture or art work, which they collected on treasure hunts at the Getty, a virtual museum hosted by the real J. Paul Getty Museum.
"All of that really taught us and enforced the idea that when you allow the process to be driven by the user, they always come back and surprise you," said Sun. "They learn about life. And sometimes they learn about themselves."Kid safety in the age of MySpace phobias
Whyville citizenship isn't easy to come by, creating a challenge for predators. To gain the privilege to chat with other members, send "internal city e-mail" or post messages on bulletin boards, kids must have their parents send a fax that verifies the child's application to join Whyville and approves those activities. Without such permission, kids may play games or join educational activities, but they can't talk to others.
What's more, the community requires new members to get their "chat license," which involves taking a multiple-choice quiz that tests their knowledge on how to act with strangers, what information to give out to other members (no personal information), and other such things. And kids must log in on three different days before they can chat.
Artificial-intelligence technology also filters out bad words or suggestive words, like "pants," and asks chatters to rephrase their sentence. If the person persists, he or she can lose chat privileges.
As for "River City," its creators say it's 100 percent safe, given that it's distributed only to K-12 schools, password-protected and overseen by teachers. Students' digital characters can only communicate with members of their team via chat or e-mail. Teachers also often sift through chat logs to ensure that no child is harassing others.
Gallas used Whyville for a classroom of sixth graders at University Elementary School, inside the University of California at Los Angeles' School of Education and Information Science. The students used butcher paper in class to chart how the infection spread from child to child with information on Post-It notes about symptoms, who talked to whom, where and when they got the infection and how long symptoms lasted.
The kids wrote papers on the subject and became philanthropic, donating money and land for universities and hospitals.
"They started coming up with theories, like because the beach was so densely crowded, that's where they might have caught it," or that the virus has a seven day lifecycle, she said.
"None of this information was given to them. They were the disease detectives. And I would lead the discussion."
Send insights or tips on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
Sit down with children when they're online, and make sure they visit only Web sites that are parent-approved. The American Library Association lists great sites for kids on its Web site.
Use child-friendly search engines or one with parental controls. KidsClick, for example, is a Web search site by librarians.
Establish a family e-mail account.
Talk to children about their online activities and online friends because to them, the Internet is an extension of the real world.
Establish rules for the Internet. Studies from Canada's Media Awareness group have shown that children respond positively to established rules.
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