July 21, 2018
News & Announcements

Department of Education/IES Grant for Earth & Space Science

Lindsey Tropf

We're realizing it's about time we made this announcement official!  The Department of Education / Institute for Education Sciences (IES) has awarded us a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for expanding Tyto Online beyond life science -- into Earth & Space Science!  See the official award here.

The proposed product is a complete Earth & Space Science domain game-based learning content set added onto Tyto Online, which has been designed explicitly for learning STEM concepts in a collaborative, multiplayer 3D gameplay space. The intent is to have a single game that can be used as an all-in-one game-based learning platform with content across domains that teachers can use seamlessly across their integrated curriculum.

This Phase I grant will be for developing out the Weather & Climate Module, and then if we are awarded a Phase II, we will finish the rest of the topics needed for a complete middle school Earth & Space Science domain within Tyto Online.

Innovation Description

The two main development features which will result in a playable prototype for our Weather & Climate Module are a set of Sequences and the Sandbox.

Sequences of Quests. The Weather & Climate topic has three performance expectations in the NGSS. We will develop Sequences to cover them, which are quest lines that build understanding with a prepared storyline teachers can use. We expect 2-3 Sequences to cover all the Weather & Climate Standards, which will require development of new phenomena’s in-game representations and additional game mechanics.

We’re still iterating the storylines with the Educational Consultants, but one current idea is a Sequence where students are helping a scientific outpost make weather predictions. This set of quests would address a standard around understanding how air mass interactions result in weather conditions and an engineering standard, building from an in-game experiment on how warm and cold air interact to reviewing planet-scale patterns and models, to making their own weather predictions.

Teachers will be able to view and assign these Sequences from their Teacher Dashboard, and track students’ progress throughout them, including viewing student work-product created, such as models or arguments.

Broken Planet Sandbox. The Sandbox extends upon the quest learning by allowing students to more openly experiment with concepts learned during quest sequences while also giving students the opportunity to build and be creative in a freeform environment. The Earth & Space Sandbox will allow students to fix issues that simulated planets have as they work to save them and let life begin to grow. For example, the student may be presented with a planet that has some problems like its seasons being too long and extreme for a variety of animals to survive due to its orbit around its star, and thus needs adjustment. As they improve the functioning of the systems, they will see new tiny creatures and plants begin to flourish on their planet.

Our plan for Earth & Space Science is to have one large shared Sandbox, rather than building some separate ones like we did for Life Science.  As students learn more content areas, more features will unlock in the Sandbox, until they have completely mastered the Earth & Space Science content!

An initial version of the Sandbox will be created for this Phase I grant that focuses only on the Weather & Climate features. The Sandbox design is still in iteration, but is currently planned to allow students to:

  • Create air masses with size, humidity, pressure, and temperature factors and place them on the planet;
  • Make observations and predictions about air mass behavior and interactions by completing challenges and objectives;
  • Make limited changes to the planet’s tilt and rotation to impact global climate;
  • Add or subtract human impact units that will then begin producing greenhouse gases and require technology and other management by the player to mitigate their environmental impact.

Other variables will be controlled by the game simulation and interact with the player’s inputs. For example, placement of mountains and water impacts the interactions of the air masses based on where the player puts them. For Phase 1, the player will not be able to build these terrain features themselves, as that will unlock during Phase 2 when they learn other topic areas such as tectonic plates that would be used to build the mountain ranges. For Phase 1, the game simulation will provide these base features in pre-set patterns that then interact with the variables the player can impact.

The simulation modeling is currently planned to include air mass interactions between other air masses (pressure, humidity, temperature), terrain elevation, and water; planetary tilt vs. latitude changing general seasons and regional temperature at various latitudes, the Coriolis effect, rotation, altitude’s impact on regional temperatures, wind current and direction, and human impact with greenhouse gases on global temperature over time. Plants and animals will also be generated in response to the changing weather (correct ones to represent the biomes they created across their planet), mainly as a visual feedback and part of the model showing how biodiversity will be impacted by various regional climates.

As mentioned, the students will be given challenges to guide their experiences. Examples of these player objectives and challenges we are currently planning on include:

  • Predicting what will happen at various marker locations with placing of air masses, such as placing air masses to make a large thunderstorm storm happen;
  • Modify the tilt and rotation of the planet to maximize the amount of land that is habitable;
  • Create specified biome types by modifying the weather variables, such as making a desert (high temperature, low precipitation) or a rainforest (high temperature, high precipitation);
  • Stabilize the planetary weather with a sustainable system that doesn’t need constant upkeep to remain habitable.

When the player has met challenges and stabilized a planet’s weather (i.e. fixed the broken planet), they will get another planet and grow their collection. They will be able to return to their planet as conditions slowly change over time, meaning their set of planets to help is a collection they will need to also manage as the climate changes for various reasons (such as human release of greenhouse gases).

Educational Impact

Overall, there is a strong background of empirical support for games as learning tools. In one meta-analysis, students using digital games consistently showed improved learning outcomes, and those games with a defined learning theory basis did even better (Clark, Smith, & Killingsworth, 2014). Another series of studies commissioned by the Gates Foundation showed that students’ academic achievement that did not learn with simulations could have been improved an average of 23% if they had learned with simulations (D’Angelo et al., 2014). The upcoming Modules rely heavily on both game mechanics and simulation within the game for students to do Quests, and especially within the Sandbox.

Problem Based Learning. Tyto Online utilizes a problem based learning approach, which is a form of constructivist learning. In problem based learning, students are introduced to a setting, engage with a problem, research and set their own hypotheses, and participate in self-reflection as they work to solve problems. The benefits of problem based learning include situating learning in context, encouraging accessing of prior knowledge for high-road transfer, improving metacognitive awareness, and long-term retention (Hmelo & Evensen, 2000; Gavriel & Perkins, 1989). Students who use problem based learning are more likely to use basic science as a tool for problem solving than students in a traditional curriculum (Hmelo & Evensen, 2000).

The design also pulls from the research base on best practices for game-based learning pedagogy and science instruction to support strong outcomes of increased science learning and assessment performance. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Games which employ endogenous mechanics where the learning is tied directly to gameplay mechanics improve learning better than games which employ exogenous approaches (such as overlaying questions with unrelated gameplay) — and students in one study chose to play them 7x more (Habgood & Ainsworth, 2011);
  • Playing multiple game sessions demonstrate better learning outcomes than non-game or single gameplay session conditions (Clark, Smith, & Killingsworth, 2014);
  • Immersive and role-playing games often show increased academic performance and transfer of skills (Takeuchi & Vaala, 2014);
  • Students learning science must have direct experience with the phenomena they are learning about, including raising questions and drawing new conclusions through experiences (Worth, Duque, & Saltiel, 2009);
  • Students must understand and care about the question or problem they are working on (Worth, Duque, & Saltiel, 2009);

The implementation of these best practices is expected to result in improved academic achievement and scientific literacy. Studies show that students who use problem and inquiry based learning approaches develop improved scientific literacy, improved research skills, and are more likely to use basic science as a tool for problem solving than students in a traditional curriculum (Gormally et al., 2009; Hmelo & Evensen, 2000). These skills are critical for later development of students into STEM careers, and also for performance for NGSS assessments.

Teachers: Interested in participating?

If you're a teacher who loves Earth/Space Science and is interested in giving us feedback on our Storylines and mechanics, participating in focus groups, or potentially even testing the product in early December in your classroom, reach out to the grant's Principal Investigator, Lindsey Tropf, at lindsey@immersedgames.com


Clark, D.B., Tanner-Smith, E.E., & Killingsworth, S. (2014). Digital games, design, and learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

D’Angelo, C., Rutstein, D., Harris, C., Haertel, G., Bernard, R., & Borokhoski, E. (2014). Simulations for STEM Learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Habgood, M.P., Jacob and AINSWORTH, Shaaron E (2011). Motivating children to learn effectively: exploring the value of intrinsic integration in educational games. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 20 (2), 169-206.

Hmelo, C.E., & Evensen, D.H. (2000). Problem-based learning: Gaining insights on learning  interactions through multiple methods of inquiry. In. D.H. Evensen & C.E. Hmelo (Eds.),  Problem-based learning: A research perspective on learning interactions (1-18). New  York, NY: Routledge Falmer.

Gavriel, S., & Perkins, D.N. (1989). Rocky roads to transfer: Rethinking mechanics of a  neglected phenomenon. Educational Psychologist, 24(2), 113-142.

Gormally, Cara; Brickman, Peggy; Hallar, Brittan; and Armstrong, Norris (2009) "Effects of Inquiry-based Learning on Students’ Science Literacy Skills and Confidence,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 3: No. 2, Article 16. Available at: https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2009.030216

Takeuchi, L. M., & Vaala, S. (2014). Level up learning: A national survey on teaching with digital games. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Worth, K., Duque, M., & Saltiel, E. (2009). Designing and implementing inqiry-based science units for primary education. Montrouge, France: Pollen, Seed Cities for Science.

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