‘Part of the Wisconsin Idea’: Teachers help Field Day Lab build out latest educational video game

By Laurel White

Ben Stern is stymied. His submarine is stuck. 

The sub’s engine isn’t strong enough to overcome a strong ocean current in an area he wants to explore, and his typically trusty vehicle keeps getting pushed off course. 

Shaking his fists at the sky, Stern smiles ruefully. 

“It’s so frustrating,” he laughs. “I need more experience points to buy a stronger engine.”

Perhaps the mention of “points” gives it away, but Stern isn’t a professional submarine pilot — he’s just playing as one as he explores a virtual marine ecosystem. 

By trade, Stern is a high school science teacher from Appleton. He’s one of two primary educational advisors on the latest educational video game from UW-Madison’s Field Day Lab, an immersive, life-sciences-focused game called Aqualab. 

On a beautiful summer day in Madison, Stern and about a dozen other teachers selected for Field Day’s latest implementation fellowship are gathered with Field Day researchers and staff. Their mission is clear: brainstorm a bundle of Aqualab-related lessons that can be distributed to teachers around the country. 

(And to overcome that pesky ocean current, of course.)

In Aqualab, players take on the role of a scientist working at an ocean-floor research station. Putting students in a researcher’s shoes, the game aims to teach middle and high-school students about scientific research practices like identifying problems, designing experiments, creating models, and arguing from evidence. 

“Science is not just the facts — it’s a way of knowing,” Stern explains. When students play Aqualab, they are “actively learning, poking and prodding the system,” he says. 

Aqualab in action (Photo courtesy Field Day Lab)

In the game, students conduct experiments like gathering samples of oceanic flora and fauna and bringing them back to their lab for observation. As the game progresses, the experiments grow increasingly complex and players earn more experience points to “buy” the additional equipment needed to complete more advanced inquiries.

Before long, students are troubleshooting snags in their experiments and building out scientific models. In all, the game — which is the most in-depth Field Day Lab has ever created — can take up to eight to 10 hours to complete.

Including teachers like Stern in the game development process isn’t new for Field Day Lab. Getting feedback from educational advisors and implementation fellows is a key part of making these games a success, according to Jim Mathews, education director and associate researcher at Field Day.

“It’s important to have them involved early on,” Mathews says of the teachers, “to ensure that the game aligns with their curricular goals and needs.” 

Since the onset of the Aqualab project, which got its first round of funding from the National Science Foundation in 2019, 26 Wisconsin teachers from across the state have been looped in to offer feedback, Mathews said. Since the earliest drafts of the game, those teachers have told the lab and its team of researchers and designers if the game was headed in the right direction. They have weighed in on whether it was “on target” to achieve necessary learning goals and, crucially, whether it would be engaging for students. 

Field Day staff and Aqualab implementation fellows
Field Day staff and Aqualab implementation fellowship recipients in Madison on Aug. 10, 2022 (Photo courtesy Field Day Lab)

Involving students in playtesting is also a key part of the project.

“Kids are brutally honest,” Mathews laughs. And teachers are a direct line to that brutal honesty. 

Mathews also says it’s critical to get insight from teachers about ways to integrate the game into curricula. 

“Teachers’ expertise and input is essential so that we can develop materials that will actually get used in the classroom,” he says. 

The implementation fellows are more than happy to step in and help with that. 

Olivia Dachel, a high school business, science, and computer science teacher from Merrill, describes the atmosphere among the teachers helping brainstorm Aqualab curricula as “energetic” and “excited.” She gestures around the room at rows of white brainstorming sheets, all filled with lesson ideas. The ideas range from discussions about food webs to concepts like water conservation, economics, and engineering. 

“This is a great way to end the summer,” Dachel, who heads back to the classroom next week, says. “It’s exciting for us to think about ways of bringing these concepts to our students.”

Dachel and the other teachers involved in the implementation fellowship were also able to visit the UW-Madison Center for Limnology and shadow a research scientist on a lake excursion. There were no submarines involved, but Mathews says the goal was to give teachers even more Aqualab-related insight and information to take back to their students. The implementation fellowship is also about connecting teachers to UW-Madison researchers and research, he says. 

Dachel lights up when she talks about what her students will get from Aqualab. This isn’t her first experience with Field Day Lab — she knows the unique strengths games have in the classroom. 

“They allow students of all levels to collaborate,” she says. “The gamers who never talked to anyone in class before — playing the game has them helping the AP student figure out a problem.”

She says playing a role in getting Aqualab successfully from UW-Madison into classrooms around the state and the country has been a wonderful experience. 

“It’s being a part of the Wisconsin Idea,” she said.

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