Rocking Whyville and Learning MathPosted by MomOnMars on May 14, 2012
Have you been to Whyville? Have your kids? What is Whyville? Where is Whyville? What are we talking about? And why do we care?
I learned about Whyville several years back during the very first TEDx San Antonio when James Bower, San Antonio’s very own computational neurobiologist (say that five times fast), gave an amazing talk about the future of education. I was fascinated by him and the work that he was doing at Numedon in his cyberworld of Whyville.
I had the chance to catch up with James again at South by Southwest this Spring to find out what’s new in Whyville. As we sat outside after a long day of panels, James was full of excitement about his latest project. And it was, frankly, contagious.
“Look,” he said. “We teach kids that = means The Answer. But that’s not what it means at all.” My brows must have burrowed in confusion. Okay, math was never my expertise, but I always thought = meant the answer. “NO,” he says emphatically. “Look,” as he starts to draw all kinds of shapes on the page. “When we use puzzles to explain things, we can show exactly what = means…” And his explanation comes to life in triangles and lines and squares.
It’s a revolutionary way to teach math, he says, using the innovative K-5 ThinkMath! curriculum developed by the Education Development Center with support from the National Science Foundation. Bower has integrated formal classroom-based instruction with informal game-based learning in an online social environment.
Building off components of the ThinkMath! curriculum, Whyville plans to promote an in-depth understanding of math concepts through an educational virtual world for kids ages 8-15. “In other words, we will take K5 math curriculum, and Whyvillize it. We are really asking, what’s the right way to teach math?”
And, this is one of the most wonderful things about talking to James Bower. He takes nothing for granted. Questions everything. Every assumption. Every paradigm.
There’s no doubt that in the world of Whyville kids will master math. As they have learned to master solar power. And finances. And social skills. And safety. And government. And so many other practical life skills built into this amazing world where mental infrastructure and understanding is built piece by beautiful piece.
There’s a heated competition going on right now in Whyville, the WhyPower Competition for Texas middle schools. Right now, two San Antonio middle schools are in the top ten! STEM Academy and Lopez Middle School. Good luck, guys! Go earn those clams!
Right before I got ready to publish this piece, I got yet another exciting email from James. Whyville has just launched an innovative avatar-based effort to help kids deal with emotional issues, too. Why not? Designed with the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, a simulated avatar wanders into Whyville chat rooms and professes to be upset. Kids in the rooms, then, can work together to try to figure out what is wrong and help the avatar in distress. When they are successful, Whyvillians are rewarded with a “clam storm” in which Whyville’s virtual currency rains from the sky. I love this. It’s just one more way Bower is pushing the limits of what we can teach our kids in an online world at a time when they are facing some of the most difficult social experiences of their lives – middle school.
Seven million Whyvillians can’t be wrong. This. Place. Rocks.