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Handheld computers make light work of economics, science

With titles like Hip Hop Tycoon and Sick at South Beach, what's not to like?
Eric Klopfer
Eric Klopfer
Photo / Ed Quinn, MIT Spectrum

MIT students are helping bring science education out of the textbook and into the handheld.

Under the casually watchful eye of Eric Klopfer, director of the MIT Teacher Education Program, a roomful of students recruited under the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) is writing code for three different handheld (PDA) projects. All of them aim at making science, economics and other "dry" topics vividly interesting, interactive and fun, for students, teachers and citizens at large.

"We use cheap hardware with easily downloadable software that pairs with curricula and with related activities," said Klopfer, who is an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. All three projects use commercial, off-the-shelf handhelds, such as the Palm Pilot and Dell Axim, which are easy to use and more affordable for strapped school systems than laptop or desktop computers.

Ben Schmeckpeper, a 2005 MIT grad who is now working toward his master's in electrical engineering and computer science, is among the students working on the Augmented Reality project that utilizes GPS (global positioning system) capability. In addition to coding, his summer has included conducting three workshops for teachers -- two in Wisconsin and one at Harvard -- to introduce educators to the games the team has developed. The MIT group, in collaboration with colleagues at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin, demoed two games, Hip-Hop Tycoon (an economics simulation game) and Sick at South Beach, aimed at seventh- and eighth-grade environmental science students, for a group of about 15 teachers in Milwaukee, which fortuitously is also Schmeckpeper's hometown.

Solving a science mystery

In Sick at South Beach, kids use the handhelds to solve a science mystery: a cluster of waterborne illness among children swimming at a landmark familiar to locals -- Milwaukee's South Shore Beach. Maps in the PDA direct kids to specific locations, where they can pick up water and soil samples, "interview" informants -- other students playing roles such as water scientist, local resident and news reporter -- and gather clues about sources of pollution, such as farm animals or sewage outflow.

In the teacher workshops, Schmeckpeper says, "It took about a day and a half to explain what the games were about," but then the participants started to get excited. Because the games can be adapted to local places and even local situations, students and teachers can feel the relevance of the simulations to their real lives.

Pedagogic pull

While Schmeckpeper was attracted to the technical side of the research -- "I'd never worked with handhelds before, and there's a lot of open-endedness" -- other UROP students were more interested in the pedagogic side. Chris Wong, a junior in electrical engineering and computer science who is part of a second group working on an ecology simulation game called Palm-a-gotchi (a play on Tamagotchi, the Japanese adopt-a-virtual-pet game), says his interest in education was a big reason why he chose to get involved in the project.

In the Palm-a-gotchi game, based loosely on Darwin's finches in the Galapagos Islands and still in development, the students have a collection of birds and flowers, each of which reacts to and attracts the others in different ways. Players have to figure out which birds need to eat the fruit or seeds of which flowers in order to produce and raise their young. All of this has to be done interactively, to maximize teamwork and cooperation among the middle and high school biology students who are the target audience. Wong's aim, he says, is "trying to make it as fun as possible."

A third group of MIT students is working on a project that uses indoor wireless networking. This technology was first created for the Boston Museum of Science as part of a parent-child sign-up class called Mystery at the Museum, which simulated a theft at that local institution. Teams used the PDAs to comb the halls of the museum for clues, witnesses and suspects, and ultimately solve the mystery. Klopfer's team and others have built a number of interactive handheld games to simulate a wide variety of scenarios.

Developing public scientific opinion

Currently this wireless technology is being developed, in cooperation with John Durant of the MIT Museum, into a tool for POSIT (Developing Public Opinion of Science using Information Technologies). The simulations, funded by the Microsoft iCampus initiative, will involve public controversies in science, such as plans for a (fictitious) biohazard lab at MIT. Called Outbreak at MIT, the game creates a scenario that includes all the players that might likely appear on the scene: concerned citizens, EMTs, engineers, MIT employees and others. Participants have to gauge the thinking of other stakeholders and try to convince them to change or strengthen their opinions using scientific data.

Neil Dowgun, a junior in electrical engineering and computer science and one of the students programming for the POSIT project, explains, "On the server side we have a map of the area with buildings in red and histograms of opinions. Each person has an inventory of evidence that they can put in a portfolio of limited size, and they can show it to two other people to sway their opinion." One of the attractions for Dowgun was that the project is still in the design phase. "I got to do a lot of work designing the interface and that's what I really like," he says.

To read more about the POSIT project and get a glimpse of the handheld, visit

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