PASADENA, CA — Sometimes, as the saying goes, it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Working in science education, I often get bogged down by how hopeless the situation sometimes seems. Study after study shows that our students are less interested and less proficient in math and science.
Educational experts say our programs are ineffective and misguided. Nothing we do seems to make any difference. Despite lots of good intentions and a moderate amount of funding, they say minorities and women are not making great strides (or indeed, any noticeable strides) toward success in science.
One of the real lights in the echoing darkness of science education is a small independent company called Numedeon, which runs a website called Whyville. Whyville has managed to do the impossible generate massive interest in science among adolescent girls. Whyville has almost a quarter-million registered users, three quarters of which are middle-school aged girls.
Most users log on several times a week; many log on daily. I've found it nearly impossible to log on at peak after-school hours (the Whyville staff assures me they are adding more servers to keep up with demand).
The fact that young girls are spending hours on a science education site is rather startling, and I'm not the only one that thinks so. Serious organizations like the National Science Foundation are taking a hard look at Whyville to figure out what there're doing right.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain what makes Whyville so attractive to young women is to admit the truth ... I have become a Whyville addict. It started so innocently. Intrigued by the statistics presented to me by the Whyville founders, I decided to explore the site on my own.
The first page features colorful graphics depicting a town square, surrounded by fanciful, funky-looking buildings. One large tent-like building is called the SunSpot. Click to enter, and inside you'll find links and instructions to explore a host of activities about our Sun.
My favorite activity involves rescuing unfortunate (but benign) alien visitors experiencing a malfunction in their transporter device. The aliens, who are scattered over the surface of the Earth, call in with cryptic clues as to their whereabouts. To rescue an alien, one must board a "warp wagon" capable of traveling through space and time and find the alien in the right city on the right date. For example, one alien exclaims: "I'm in a very strange place. It's full of neon lights and people keep trying to push free drinks on me. I'm not sure what time of the year it is, but the Sun is setting as far south as it ever does today."
Experimenting with an applet-based interactive celestial sphere allows the "rescuer" to determine that the winter solstice is the date on which the Sun sets farthest south (at least for Northern Hemisphere locations), and some logical guessing locates the alien in Las Vegas. When the "warp wagon" arrives at the correct place and time, the grateful alien is found wearing an Elvis costume. Collect all aliens successfully, and the rescuer is awarded a prize: printouts of a model flying saucer, along with paper dolls of the aliens wearing native dress from all their respective locations.
The activity is quite ingenious. It requires a good knowledge of geography, as well as a familiarity with the yearly cycles of the Sun. It also incorporates humor and creativity. But the thing I found strangely comforting about the activity was how non-threatening it was.
Nothing about it is competitive. You get as many chances as you need to find the aliens, and there is only positive feedback the aliens don't die if you don't find them, nothing explodes, and you don't have to shoot at anything. Other activities involve using vectors to steer a balloon through differing layers of air currents, creating dances using Cartesian coordinates, categorizing different types of rocks, or designing a rocket to launch supplies to a space station.
OK, that's all well and good, but what has the pre-teen girl set so excited? That's where the real genius of Whyville starts. Remember the town square you enter when you log on? Even before you notice the buildings and links to science activities, you'll be enchanted by the cartoon characters floating around like virtual helium balloons.
These are the Whyville avatars. First-time visitors are represented by a fairly standard smiley-face. Once you register as a member (registration is free and the site contains no advertising), you are allowed to design your own avatar. (Most of them bear a troubling resemblance to Britney Spears.) This creates a wonderful consistency to the site.
One of the most popular parts of Whyville is the "Pick Your Nose" site, where you choose your avatar's nose, hair, eyes, mouths, clothing, and accessories. Can't find what you like? Another graphic design interface lets you create your own avatar from scratch. You can even build a house for your avatar, and fill the individual rooms with furniture, decorations, and awards for completing the various science activities.
I've actually spent hours wandering around the virtual town (all of which is rendered real-time) to explore kid's houses and check out their tastes in interior design. The rub is, none of this is free. The currency in Whyville is "clams," which are earned by scoring highly on the science activities. Repeat users earn a salary each week, based on how much science they've done. This feature alone really got me hooked. Each week I earned more and more clams, and had soon outfitted my avatar with the latest blue-streaked hair and hip leather jacket. Virtual shopping turns out to be comparably addictive to the real thing.
The avatars can also talk to each other in real time, much like instant messaging. As you float along, you can see where everyone else is and what they're doing. You can talk to anyone you like, about anything you like. And so, the kids talk to each other. They talk about boys and where to get those really great hot-pink lips on your avatar, but they also ask each other questions about where to find that last alien or what sort of rocket they're building. The kids started their own newspaper ("The Whyville Times"), and post articles, poetry, and art to it regularly.
Whyville isn't perfect (the creators are somewhat worried about the emphasis the girls are placing on the physical appearance of their avatars avatar beauty contests are annoyingly common), but it's the best shot at targeting young women I've ever seen. Yes, the kids probably talk more about non-science topics than science, but the activities are solid and thought-provoking. You can't just fake your way through them. Scores of parents have written to Whyville, amazed at their daughter's sudden interest in science. They've been made to feel that science is just as much meant for them as anyone else. And that, in itself, makes Whyville a guiding light for all us science educators.
Michelle Thaller is an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. She earned a bachelor's degree in astronomy from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Georgia State University. A massive-star specialist by trade, she currently dedicates most of her time to education and public outreach for the Space Infrared Telescope Facility.