and technology to make informed decisions about critical social scientific issues, ranging from global warming to personal medical treatments. Adults in the United States have a naïve understanding of science concepts and the nature of science (National Research Council, 2007; Pew Research Center and American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2009), and the uneven science achievement of current K-12 students threatens to perpetuate this problem.
U.S. students’ limited science knowledge results partly from a lack of interest in science and motivation to persist in mastering difficult science concepts, and this lack of interest in, in turn, is related to current approaches to science education (National Research Council, 2005b, 2007). Although young children come to school with innate curiosity and intuitive ideas about the world around them, science classes rarely tap this potential. In elementary and secondary science classrooms, students often spend time memorizing discrete science facts, rather than developing deep conceptual understanding. Partly because of a focus on improving student performance on high-stakes accountability tests, science classes typically provide students with few opportunities to conduct investigations, directly observe natural phenomena, or work to formulate scientific explanations for these phenomena (Banilower et al., 2008; National Research Council, 2005b).
Over time, students no longer see science as connected to the real world and lose interest in the subject, especially as they move from elementary to middle school (Cavallo and Laubach, 2001; Cohen-Scali, 2003; Gibson and Chase, 2002; Ma and Wilkins, 2002). Within this overall pattern, girls, minorities, students from single-parent homes, and students living in poor socioeconomic conditions generally have more negative perceptions of science than do boys, whites, students from two-parent families, and students with high socioeconomic status (Barman, 1999; Blosser, 1990; Ma and Ma, 2004; Ma and Wilkins, 2002). Among middle and high school students responding to a recent national survey, only half viewed science as important for success in high school and college, and only about 20 percent expressed interest in a science career (Project Tomorrow and PASCO Scientific, 2008).
To explore the potential of computer simulations and games to address these critical science education challenges, the National Science Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation charged the National Research Council as follows (see Box 1-1).
To carry out the charge, the board convened the Committee on Science Learning: Computer Games, Simulations, and Education, with representation from science education and learning in science, pedagogy, the design of games and simulations, the design of online learning environments, the