In 2010, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) piloted their Virtual Worlds Institute, a digital media-based summer camp for middle schoolers. This year’s second Virtual Worlds Institute was a two-week long experience where students chose a prehistoric sea creature from the Cretaceous period and brought them back to life with research and cutting edge software.
LEVELING UP THE VIRTUAL WORLDS INSTITUTE
Earlier in the Spring, the Museum contacted Games for Change to improve upon last year’s success and begin the path of integrating gaming tools into their programs. Working with a dedicated team of educators and Museum staff, we helped create a request for proposal to find informal science educators across the country willing to bring the Virtual Worlds Institute to the next level. Answering the call was Science House – a community of scientists, business people, investors, and philanthropists all working together with the common goal of advancing scientific education. Science House brought two technologies to the camp that allowed the students to bring their research to life in exciting new ways.
Creating 3D models is often a technically demanding and difficult process. To help the campers create realistic 3D models of their sea creatures, Science House introduced the Museum to the free tool Sculptris, by Pixologic (creators of ZBrush, the industry standard for movies, games, and more). With its user-friendly design and simple but powerful tools, the campers were able to create realistic models with ease. To fully experience their creatures in their natural habitats, the team at Science House prepared a realistic virtual environment in Blue Mars, a free platform that allows users to create and share 3D worlds.
RESURRECTING THE PAST
The purpose of the Virtual Worlds Institute is to educate students about the past while introducing them to being hands-on in the scientific process. They went digging for fossils at a local brook and gathered data from fossil evidence inside the Museum. With this factual evidence, the campers began formulating ideas about the creature’s habits and environments. Next, students were asked to do independent research on the Internet to begin constructing conjectures based on images, blogs, and other information sources to round out their data set. After they found their evidence and created their assumptions, they used these results to create what they felt were accurate 3D models of the sea creatures in Sculptris. Once satisfied, and with the help of Science House, the campers “resurrected” their creatures and put their animated clones in their proper environments in Blue Mars.
After two weeks of hard work, the students, their parents, educators, and others were invited to the Museum to see the enthusiastic, and often very humorous, presentations by the campers. The audience was amazed at the level of professionalism, research, and quality of the 3D models the students presented. Shortly after, we were lucky enough to speak to a handful of students and parents about the Virtual Worlds Institute. Much of what we heard could be summed up by this father and son:
The ability to put the scientific theory to practice and discover at their own pace was an eye opener for the students. The unique experience of emulating the work of real scientists coupled with the chance to use their personality, creativity, and technology to deliver information to their peers was an opportunity unmatched in most learning environments. The impact of this work and the level of digital literacy these students already have impressed us and members of the Science House and the Museum. We spoke to the Executive Director of Science House, Joshua Fouts and their VP of Business Development Rita J. King about why learning and presenting with digital media is so important. We also spoke with a member of the Museum who worked with the campers, Jen Ressler:
We were pleased to work with the American Museum of Natural History Our partnership aims to explore additional models that support youth in designing games during their summer camps and beyond. For another look into the Virtual Worlds Institute, you can read Rita J. King’s report on the Science House blog or you can visit the American Museum of Natural History’s website.