Building cells in the classroom

“CellCraft,” a science-education computer game being developed by a Wake Forest professor and two graduates, has entered the testing phase.

Designed to teach children how cells function, the educational video game was created by Anthony Pecorella (’04, MA ’06) and Yuri Shtridelman (’07), along with Assistant Professor of Physics Jed Macosko.

Peter Dunlap (’07), a graduate student in the education department, teamed up with Macosko and Assistant Professor of Education John Pecore to conduct a study of the game’s effectiveness. Dunlap surveyed 131 students at Hanes Middle School and Reagan High School in Winston-Salem to find out if the game helped them learn about the inner workings of cells and if the game influenced their attitudes toward science.

The students were asked to complete a test before playing the game to evaluate their knowledge of cells and a questionnaire to evaluate their attitude toward science and toward computer use in science education. After playing the CellCraft game for 30 minutes, they retook the test and responded again to the survey evaluating their attitude toward science.

“The study showed that the videogame does increase student-content knowledge,” Dunlap says. The study also showed improvement in the students’ attitudes toward science after they played the game.

Dunlap hopes the data will provide useful feedback as Pecorella, Shtridelman and Macosko finalize CellCraft for a public launch early in 2010.

In “CellCraft: Exploring the Cell through Computer Games,” players begin with a few simple molecular machines and expand until they have a fully functional cell. The game was developed with $25,000 in funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in its 2009 Digital Media & Learning Competition.

Based partly on the results of Dunlap’s study, Pecorella, Shtridelman and Macosko are working on a more complicated version of the game that includes viruses as villains and incorporates a more complex story line.

Dunlap plans to teach high school physics after he earns a master’s degree, but he said he would use CellCraft if he were teaching biology. “I would use CellCraft because it captures the complexity of the inter-cellular relationships of the cell’s various parts. Teachers are trying to teach the students as much material as possible and the students are trying to have as much fun as possible. Normally this causes friction and the occasional disruption. A videogame is a fantastic way to meet both the teachers’ and the students’ needs.”

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