Science Literacy in Virtual Worlds

Constance Steinkuehler, Sean Duncan, David Simkins, Barbara Johnson, Elizabeth King

Currently, only one in five Americans is scientifically literate despite pervasive and mandatory science instruction (Miller, 2004). In a recent study of contemporary classroom practice, Chinn and Malhotra (2002) found that standard inquiry activities not only failed to engender scientific habits of mind, but also fostered epistemological beliefs directly antithetical to them. Our society is facing a crisis in science education and instruction, and it is imperative that, in order to cultivate science literacy in the 21st century, we should explore new, forward-leaning domains of learning — ones in which intellectual practices, dispositions, and productive forms of social organization are fostered.

Steinkuehler and Chmiel (2006) illustrated that virtual worlds were a potentially fruitful area to investigate in this regard. Virtual worlds function as naturally occurring, self-sustaining, and indigenous online communities of learning and practice, and the study of virtual worlds tells us something important about how such learning communities form and function “in the wild.” Perhaps most interesting, however, is the constellation of intellectual practices that surrounds game play in virtual spaces and the way these exhibit informal scientific reasoning and science literacy found in the least likely of places — the context of popular culture.

In this presentation, we describe how our latest research on discussions in World of Warcraft forums evince the ways that informal scientific reasoning and science literacy can manifest themselves around some games. We will also discuss three other intellectual practices that emerge out of game play in virtual worlds — collaborative problem-solving, digital media literacy, and computational literacy — as well as how they combine with scientific literacy to support and enable a form of “pop cosmopolitanism” (Steinkuehler, 2006) for adolescents and young adults. We will describe the current trajectory of research we are now engaged in:

  1. The empirical investigation of focused research questions to document and analyze the core practices that constitutes game play in and around virtual worlds and online communities (Year One, now at a close)

  2. Broad-scale survey, interview, focus group, observation, and program pilot work in order to tease out who engages in such practices and in what contexts, what gateways and barriers they encounter while becoming a participant in such practices, and how such knowledge and skills play out in their lives outside of the game (Year Two)

  3. The refinement of educational activities for after-school clubs and parent groups that capitalize on those first two years of findings (Year Three)

Chinn, C. A. & Malhotra, B. (2002). Epistemologically authentic inquiry in schools: A theoretical framework for evaluating inquiry tasks. Science Education, 86(2), 175–218.

Miller, J. D. (2004). Public understanding of, and attitudes toward, scientific research: What we know and what we need to know. Public Understanding of Science, 13(3), 273–294.

Steinkuehler, C. (2006). Virtual worlds, learning, & the new pop cosmopolitanism. Teachers College Record, 12843.

Steinkuehler, C. & Chmiel, M. (2006). Fostering scientific habits of mind in the context of online play. In S. A. Barab, K. E. Hay, N. B. Songer, & D. T. Hickey (Eds.), Proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences (pp. 723–729). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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