Whyville: the place girls love to go for science
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.