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Report: VANISHED - The Smithsonian and MIT's Environmental Disaster Mystery

VANISHED - Middle-schoolers think like real scientists as they race to solve an environmental mystery in the alternate reality game Vanished.

The first in a series of articles.

APRIL 11th, 2011 - On February 22nd, 2011, the Smithsonian Institution announced the construction of VANISHED, an interactive educational game for 11-14 year olds.  Designed through a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technologys Education Arcade, VANISHED is being described as a first-of-its-kind interactive educational experience, and hopefully a model for future museum exhibits.  The game went online on April 4th, 2011 and will run continuously for eight weeks.  As of April 7th, the site had over 3,000 registered participants.

The details of the game are being kept closely under wraps, but according to the Smithsonians February 22nd press release, the overarching storyline invites students to experience an environmental  disaster mystery game.  The interactive mystery story will be comprised of games, puzzles, online challenges [and] museum visits.  Each week, new online material will reveal more scientific and historical matter that is crucial to solving the mystery.  Back in the real world, participants must collect scientific data from their neighborhoods and seek out information at local Smithsonian affiliate museums, where exhibits that will offer clues with be hidden in plain sight.

From an educational perspective, the purpose of the game is to cast the students as investigators and problem-solvers, rather than passive learners.  According to MIT Education Arcades Scot Osterwell, current science instruction relies too heavily on memorization and activities with predetermined outcomes, causing many kids to lose interest in science and have predetermined ideas about what it means to be a scientist.  This includes the possibility of mistakes, dead-ends, and (gasp!) failure.  Like an old-fashioned Choose Your Own Adventure book, the ultimate fate of the game world rests on the participants, and MIT sources confirm that a positive outcome is in no way assured.

Another standout feature of the VANISHED program is the fact that it highlights the frequently collaborative nature of scientific inquiry.  In addition to sharing information and brainstorming sessions with other game participants via online forums, student investigators will be able to communicate directly with Smithsonian scientists through videoconferences.  Local investigators need not only find the right resources at their individual museums, but share their knowledge and hypotheses with the entire VANISHED community to progress towards a solution.  In the spirit of the digital age, its a potential example of crowd-sourcing at its best.

The game starts online.  If you go to the front page of the Smithsonian website and click on the icon for VANISHED, you are redirected to a site hosted by MIT so that you can register for the game.  Anyone with an e-mail address can participate.  Yours truly will be following along as the game progresses, and providing updates on this site.  Stay tuned!

 

NEXT:  An interview with MIT Education Arcade staff about designing, running, and experiencing the game.

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