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Research Agenda for Simulations and Games

The weak science achievement of U.S. elementary and secondary students reflects the uneven quality of current science education. Although young children come to school with innate curiosity and intuitive ideas about the world around them, science classes rarely foster their interest. Students spend time reading science texts, listening to lectures, carrying out preordained “cookbook” laboratory activities, and memorizing the disparate science facts that are emphasized in high-stakes science tests, increasingly losing interest in science as they move from elementary school to middle and high school.

Many experts call for a new approach to science education, based on a growing body of cognitive research indicating that science learning is a multifaceted process involving much more than recall of facts (National Research Council, 2005b, 2007, 2009). In this approach, teachers and instructional materials spark students’ interest by engaging them in exploration of natural phenomena and support their learning with several forms of instruction. Students simultaneously develop conceptual understanding of these phenomena and science process skills while maintaining their motivation for continued science learning. The new approach reflects growing understanding of the critical importance of interest and enthusiasm in scaffolding science learning.

Computer simulations and games have great potential to catalyze and support the new approach, by allowing learners to explore natural phenomena that they cannot directly observe, due to time scale (too fast or slow), size (too big or small), or form (e.g., radio waves). Learners can manipulate virtual systems that represent these natural phenomena, a process that helps them to draw powerful mental connections between the representations and the phenomena and to formulate scientifically correct explanations for the phenomena.



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7 Research Agenda for Simulations and Games The weak science achievement of U.S. elementary and secondary students reflects the uneven quality of current science education. Although young children come to school with innate curiosity and intuitive ideas about the world around them, science classes rarely foster their interest. Students spend time reading science texts, listening to lectures, carrying out preordained “cookbook” laboratory activities, and memorizing the disparate science facts that are emphasized in high-stakes science tests, increasingly losing interest in science as they move from elementary school to middle and high school. Many experts call for a new approach to science education, based on a growing body of cognitive research indicating that science learning is a multifaceted process involving much more than recall of facts (National Research Council, 2005b, 2007, 2009). In this approach, teachers and instruc - tional materials spark students’ interest by engaging them in exploration of natural phenomena and support their learning with several forms of instruc- tion. Students simultaneously develop conceptual understanding of these phenomena and science process skills while maintaining their motivation for continued science learning. The new approach reflects growing under- standing of the critical importance of interest and enthusiasm in scaffolding science learning. Computer simulations and games have great potential to catalyze and support the new approach, by allowing learners to explore natural phenom- ena that they cannot directly observe, due to time scale (too fast or slow), size (too big or small), or form (e.g., radio waves). Learners can manipulate virtual systems that represent these natural phenomena, a process that helps them to draw powerful mental connections between the representations and the phenomena and to formulate scientifically correct explanations for the phenomena. 

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0 Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations Overall, the evidentiary base for learning science from simulations is stronger than that for games. There is promising evidence that simulations enhance conceptual science learning and moderate evidence that they in- crease students’ motivation for science learning. Emerging evidence from a small number of examples suggests that well-designed games can motivate students, encourage them to identify with science and science learning, and enhance conceptual understanding—but overall the research on games remains inconclusive. Although both simulations and games have been used for training and education for over three decades, their effectiveness for science learning has not been studied broadly or systematically. Reaching the potential of simulations and games to motivate and engage science students, enhance science achievement, and advance other science learning goals will require a stronger, more systematic approach to research and development. The committee’s proposed research agenda outlines such an approach. The first section of the agenda focuses on improving the overall quality of the research, the second section outlines particular topics requiring further study, and the third section identifies approaches to institutionalizing research and development on games and simulations for science learning. Improving Research Quality Research on how simulations and games support science learning has not kept pace with the rapid development of these new learning technolo- gies. Although the evidence base related to simulations is stronger than that related to games, both areas are thin. Much research has been exploratory, making it difficult to generalize, because researchers and developers have not always clearly defined the desired learning outcomes or the mechanisms by which the simulation or game is expected to advance these outcomes. The committee recommends that future research on simulations and games follow a design-based approach aimed at continuous improvement, including the following steps: • Researchers and developers should clearly specify the desired learning outcomes of a simulation or game and describe in detail how it is expected to advance these outcomes. This should include description of the design features that are hypothesized to activate learning, the intended use of these design features, and the underlying learning theory. Researchers should also indicate direct evidence of student learning, if such evidence is available. This will allow research find-­ ings to accumulate, providing a base for improved designs to further enhance the effectiveness of games and simulations for learning.

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Research Agenda for Simulations and Games  • Researchers should initially develop methodologies for both the design and evaluation of games and simulations that focus on continual improvement. The use of such methodologies will help to ensure that large studies are not outdated by the time they are published, due to changes in technology and advances in cognitive science. • Researchers should consider collaborating on “model games.” Such games would enable controlled research studies in which investiga-­ tors develop variations on the models and test them among different groups of learners to address a suite of related research questions about factors that may influence the effectiveness of games as learn-­ ing tools. New model games would build iteratively on old models, based on this research. Filling Gaps in the Research The Role of Simulations and Games in Learning Studies of the effectiveness of simulations and games for science learn- ing have tended to focus on assessing conceptual understanding alone. The research has given little attention to the broader science learning goals advocated by science education experts. Research is needed to improve understanding of how simulations and games can best motivate learners, engage them in active investigations, and build understanding of science processes as well as concepts. • Researchers should assess the potential of games and simulations to advance a broad set of science learning goals, including motiva-­ tion, conceptual understanding, science process skills, understand-­ ing of the nature of science, scientific discourse, and identification with science and science learning. Such research is needed to more clearly illuminate the full range of science competencies that can be supported with simulations and games. This report has shown that simulations and games have potential to address critical weaknesses in current science education by meeting the individual learning needs of both low-achieving and advanced science students, embedding science learning in the context of engaging real-world problems, and improving access to high-quality science learning experiences in formal and informal settings. An important first step toward reaching this potential is to increase basic understanding of the processes of learning when individuals interact with simulations and games.

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 Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations Research on the Learning Process • Research should examine the mediating processes within the indi-­ vidual that influence science learning with simulations and games. This research would aim to illuminate what happens within the individual—both emotionally and cognitively—that leads to learn-­ ing and what design features appear to activate these responses. For example, a game may arouse an emotional response and/or encour-­ age the learner to set goals. Over time, such studies might begin to identify the ways in which different design features activate shared emotional and cognitive responses that support science learning across individuals. • Research on games should seek to develop empirical links between different types of motivators and different learning outcomes. For example, extrinsic motivators, such as points or opportunities to advance to a higher level of game play, may encourage learners to repeat and remember important science or mathematics facts, while intrinsic motivators, such as satisfying one’s own curiosity or interest, may motivate deeper conceptual understanding and development of science process skills. Social motivators, such as the desire to partici-­ pate or to establish an identity in a group of game players, might be particularly effective in encouraging the development of scientific discourse and identification with science and science learning. • Research should examine the role of metacognition and awareness of oneself as a learner when an individual interacts with a simulation or game. Prior research on science learning suggests that making learning goals explicit and supporting learners in metacognition— reflecting on their own learning—enhance learning. In contrast, simulations and games can be designed to support “accidental” learn-­ ing through playful engagement. Research is needed to determine whether, and to what extent, science learning may take place even if the learner is not aware that he or she is engaged in learning. • Studies are needed to explore which individuals and groups prefer which types of simulations and games for science learning, as well as the durability of such preferences. They should consider how individual preferences are related to individual personality traits, broader group characteristics, the nature of the learning experience itself, learning processes, and learning goals. These studies should also consider how context and experience can broaden or change individual and group preferences. • Researchers should establish stronger theoretical underpinnings for the use of simulations and games by connecting research on simu-­ lations and games to the relevant theory and research on learning

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Research Agenda for Simulations and Games  more generally, drawing on social and cognitive psychology, human-­ computer interactions, anthropology, and other fields that study learning. Contextualizing Learning and Learning Transfer Although simulations and games provide contexts that can motivate and support learning, research on games has shown that learners may focus on the context or narrative to an extent that slows development of a deeper understanding of science concepts. Research is needed to explore this ten- sion and illuminate how best to create virtual contexts that both motivate learners and support durable, transferable learning. • Studies should examine how learning contexts created in simulations and games may advance or hinder attainment of different science learning goals. For example, engaging students in the context of a virtual investigation of a real-­life problem may simultaneously ad-­ vance multiple learning goals (e.g., conceptual learning and science process skills), or it may advance one or more goals while having no effect on slowing attainment of others. • Future studies should examine transfer of learning from the simula-­ tion or game learning environment to other contexts. These studies should examine how transfer occurs (including the features of simulations and games that support transfer), the extent of transfer, and whether including data drawn directly from the real world in simulations and games influences students’ understanding of science processes and/or motivates them to make real-­world decisions based on evidence. • Research is needed to examine the durability of science learning that is advanced through interaction with simulations and games. For example, some individuals develop feelings of identity with science and science learning through extended interactions with games. Investigators should track such individuals over several years to assess the extent to which this identification with science translates into sustained science achievement. In addition, they should conduct r etrospective studies to assess the extent to which identity with sci-­ ence developed through gaming may encourage entry into science careers. Increasing Access to High-Quality Learning Experiences Overcoming current barriers to the use of simulations and games to help all students learn science requires research and development in a number

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4 Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations of areas. This section of the research agenda focuses on research related to learning; in later sections, the committee recommends research to understand and mitigate constraints to wider use of simulations and games. • Future research should investigate how simulations and games can support diverse learners in science and mitigate particular individual or group learning difficulties, such as lower science achievement levels, limited English proficiency, lower general cognitive ability, learning disabilities, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. • Research should examine whether, and to what extent, diverse learners develop intuitive understandings of science processes and scientific modeling through play in the model-­based virtual worlds of recreational games and how games designed for science learning can build on these intuitive understandings to develop knowledge of science processes and the nature of science. Using Simulations and Games in Formal and Informal Contexts Simulations and games have potential to enhance science learning in formal contexts, such as science classrooms or online science courses, and in informal contexts, such as homes, after-school clubs, libraries, and recreation or science centers. Research to date has shown that the context significantly shapes how learners interact with a simulation or game and the extent to which this interaction supports science learning. Further research is needed to more fully understand how different contexts affect learning with simulations and games and to investigate how the design of learn- ing environments might impact learning. To supplement the research recom- mended above, which would use model games to assess the influence of different contexts, researchers should • Investigate how best to integrate games into formal learning contexts (K-­12 and higher education) and informal learning contexts (e.g., home, science museum, after-­school club) to enhance learning. This should include studies of how internal scaffolds in the simulation or game and external scaffolds provided by a teacher, mentor, peers, or other instructional resources (either in person or via various online mechanisms) support science learning in different contexts. • Examine current policy and practice barriers that slow the adoption and use of high-­quality simulations and games for science learning in K-­12 and higher education. This research should include examina-­ tion of such barriers as the need for teacher and faculty professional development and the limited availability and quality of assessments; technological barriers, and barriers to research in real-­world settings.

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Research Agenda for Simulations and Games  Studies of barriers in K-­12 education should examine the role of cur-­ rent state science standards and accountability systems as barriers to increased use of simulations and games. • Examine social and cultural factors in both formal and informal learning contexts that influence how widely simulations and games are used for science learning. Investigators should examine how children and adolescents, parents, caregivers, informal educators, teachers, school administrators, and education officials perceive the educational and entertainment value of games and how these perceptions may enhance or limit wider use of games designed for science learning. The findings of this research should be used to develop targeted solutions that should then be tested for effectiveness in intervention research. • Examine the potential of different types of simulations and games, as well as different types of delivery platforms, to bridge informal and formal science learning. This should include research on the potential of “lightweight” games that can be easily accessed on the web using cell phones and other mobile devices to support learning across boundaries of time and space. • Study the potential of structured informal learning environments, such as after-­school clubs and online learning communities, as promising contexts for science learning with simulations and games. Such studies should examine how learning in these environments may transfer to or support further science learning in the classroom and at home. • Study how engaging learners in implementing or modifying existing science learning games or designing new science learning games may advance one or more science learning goals. Assessing and Supporting Individualized Learning Research on how to effectively assess student learning with simulations and games and use that information to impact the learning process is still in its infancy, although initial work seems promising. Achieving the potential of simulations and games for assessment and learning will require research and development in all areas of assessment: development, implementation, and evaluation. In particular, research is needed on: • Applications of the evidence-­centered design approach to the devel-­ opment of assessments of learning through simulations and games. Developers and testing experts should collaborate to clearly identify desired learning goals and the kinds of evidence needed to show learner progress toward these goals; they should use these specifica-­

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 Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations tions to design tasks and test items in ways that will provide the needed evidence. Modeling of the motivation and thinking of the learner will need to evolve simultaneously with the “physical” modeling of the game or simulation. • The development and use of flexible statistical models and machine learning to make meaning from the large amounts of data provided by simulations and games. These measurement methods are well suited to application in simulations and games, because they can handle uncertainty about the current state of the learner, provide immediate feedback during tasks, and model complex patterns of student behavior and multiple forms of evidence. Continued research on these methods will help to improve assessment in simulations and games. Assessment tasks seamlessly embedded into game play and linked to instructional supports have great potential to support individualized science learning. Simulations and games can be designed to rapidly interpret learner performance on these tasks, using the information to provide the learner (and teacher) with feedback, coaching, or new information or learning challenges, based on the student’s unique capabilities and learning needs. These prom- ising developments, if supported by further research, could lead to radical improvements in self-directed science learning and the authentic assessment of science learning. • Researchers should continue to advance the design and use of tech-­ niques that (1) rapidly measure and adapt to students’ progress in a specific learning progression, (2) dynamically respond to an individual student’s performance, and (3) allow for the summative evaluation of how well students are learning. Scaling Up Simulations and Games The committee identified two possible models for reaching scale in the use of simulations and games for science learning in formal education: (1) a traditional top-down market model, in which games or simulations are sold or distributed to universities, schools, and school districts, and (2) a market model in which widespread use of simulations and games for informal science learning by parents, students, and individuals could dramatically change how science is learned and taught in schools and colleges. Neither model can become reality without research to more clearly illuminate the current barriers to implementation and to identify approaches to overcoming these barriers. For example, there is not yet a coherent market for either games or simulations in schools that is analogous to the textbook market,

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Research Agenda for Simulations and Games  and the bewildering variety of games and simulations for science learning available for free or for purchase can leave potential customers confused. The committee recommends the following: • Research to better understand key factors that will enable both the education marketplace and the informal learning marketplace to embrace games and simulations for science learning. The goals of this research should be to increase understanding of key design fea-­ tures that enhance the appeal and uptake of games and simulations and market forces that affect adoption across formal and informal learning contexts. • Research and development partnerships should be established to in-­ vestigate alternative mechanisms for supporting large-­scale collabora-­ tive innovation in science education based on the use of simulations and games and to support ongoing improvement in simulations and games. • Research on the feasibility of systems for informing users or consumers about the quality and educational effectiveness of simulations and games designed for science learning, such as expert rating systems. This research should explore the potential of such systems to serve as catalysts for distribution of high-­quality simulations and games. Institutionalizing Research and Development To carry out all elements of this research agenda, the committee recom- mends creating research and development partnerships: • Academic researchers, developers and entrepreneurs from the gaming industry, and education practitioners and policy makers should form r esearch and development partnerships to facilitate rich intellectual collaboration. These partnerships, which may be large or small, should coordinate and share information internally and with other partnerships and should —share resources and tools, thereby reducing costs and allowing r eusability; —provide researchers with shared points of access to students and their educational records and to informal learners, at the same time conducting research that assists formal and informal learn-­ ing institutions; —explore alternative approaches to—and economic models for— extending the life cycle of simulations and games with ongoing updating and maintenance; and

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 Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations —investigate how to optimize educational contexts for simulations and games—including alternative technologies and platforms, teacher preparation and professional development, and curricular supports—for different populations of K-­12 and adult learners. • Government agencies and foundations may consider the potential benefits of providing sustained support for such partnerships. • Government agencies and foundations may consider the potential benefits of funding research and development of new models for delivering learning opportunities through simulations and games that can be self-­sustaining and reach a broad audience. • Researchers in the software and gaming industries, government agencies, and academic institutions should continue their research and development of new, open-­source authoring tools to facilitate development of games and simulations. The research agenda outlined in this chapter is meant to provide guidance to active and prospective researchers, simulation and game developers, com- mercial publishers, and funders. However, games and simulations designed for science learning are played and used by a wide variety of individuals in rapidly changing markets. In the future, this research agenda may change with advances in technology, shifts in consumer preferences, and changes in the education environment. The committee expects that, if implemented, the research agenda will have to adapt and evolve in tandem with the evolution of the field of educational simulations and games.