Free, online learning game iPlan lets students re-imagine land use based on real science

By Karen Rivedal, WCER Communications

UW–Madison researchers teamed with the New England conservation nonprofit Mass Audubon to create the free, online learning game iPlan that uses a variety of state and federal datasets to help players simulate different land-use scenarios and see the changing effects on their community.

“When people use iPlan they learn that there are trade-offs,” lead game developer Andrew Ruis says. “For example, you can lower greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change, but without innovation, most of the ways to do that also reduce housing or jobs or commercial activity.”

Ruis is associate director for research at Epistemic Analytics, a lab within the School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research. The lab is focused on creating novel approaches and computational tools to improve the teaching and assessment of complex thinking.


Funded by a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation received by David Williamson Shaffer, iPlan is designed to advance informal learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for teenagers.

“Simulations like iPlan make it possible for kids to explore and solve real-world problems,” says Shaffer, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Learning Sciences with the Department of Educational Psychology, and director of the Epistemic Analytics lab. “It’s a powerful way to get kids interested in STEM and the role STEM professionals play in society.”

Early tests suggest it’s doing just that, especially for students who otherwise can be hard to reach, says Julia O’Hara, a teacher-naturalist with Mass Audubon, the largest nature-based conservation organization in New England. Headquartered in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the organization offers nationally recognized environmental programs for adults and children.

“We’ve noticed that learners who don’t do as well with tests and books tend to do really well with iPlan, which is great,” says O’Hara, who has been using Mass Audubon’s connections with educators to get the game into classrooms in several states since January 2021. “Teachers seem to love it.”

But iPlan is not just for educational contexts, Ruis notes. The game also could be used for outreach and information gathering by local governments or nonprofits, or by anyone who has traveled through a town and wondered what the area’s land-use map looks like — or could look like.

“For literally anywhere in the contiguous U.S., you can get a model and have it be accurate enough for educational purposes and for outreach purposes,” Ruis says. “This was designed to introduce lay people to land-use planning concepts and practices.”

Making game play realistic

The game makes use of federal datasets, including the Census and digital land-cover maps from the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists with UW–Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) partnered in helping generate underlying data for the game from those datasets, and also developed computational models for associating different land uses with different outcomes.

iPlan home page screenshot

Part of UW–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, SAGE is known for its expertise with data fusion, or combining unlike datasets using a common set of relationships or assumptions. For iPlan, that meant linking the environmental and other data with the location- based data in the game to show the impact of different zoning choices on selected factors.

To mimic the give-and-take dynamics of real land-use planning, iPlan players present their land-use changes to a slate of virtual stakeholders — including neighborhood groups, business owners, and environmental activists. These stakeholders are programmed to advocate for different priorities and provide feedback on proposed changes. The goal is to balance the needs of diverse stakeholders with different and often conflicting priorities.

In this way, players can tackle complex land-use puzzles, such as trying to figure out how to increase housing to address population growth without increasing greenhouse gases that will impact climate change.

“What you’re trying to do is figure out how to make land-use changes that make as many stakeholders as possible happy — knowing that the odds of being able to satisfy everyone are virtually zero,” Ruis says.

Teachers who tested the game in their classrooms say they appreciate the game’s true-to-life bent.

“The iPlan tool is a very realistic modeling tool,” a teacher from New England told game designers. “It was easy to use for both me and my students, and it allowed each student to engage with the model at their own level. I had been struggling to find ways to teach about ecological restoration and its implications at the local level, and this tool really helped me do that.”

Place-based learning and ecological science make game stronger


At most schools, teachers use iPlan to create a model for students that shows land uses in their own town or city.

“Research shows learning is better when it takes place in people’s own circumstances, their own backyards, and this is particularly true in environmental science,” Ruis says. “People have a level of investment in their own towns, their own regions, that they don’t necessarily have if it’s just a magic location, or even a real location that has no actual connection to their on-the-ground reality.”

But iPlan isn’t just for schools. It also could be used by nonprofits or governing bodies for public outreach and information gathering on land-use preferences.

“It’s a way to engage people in the planning process,” Ruis says. “They get a little bit better sense of what kinds of considerations are involved when you do this. It starts those conversations that can be very useful in a planning context.”

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