Many scientific domains deal with abstract and multi-dimensional phenomenon that present difficulty for students to both comprehend and apply the knowledge.  In order to master abstract scientific concepts, students need to be able to build flexible and testable mental models (Barnett, Barab, & Hay, 2000; Redish, 1993).  This is in contrast to past practices of science education that often focused on facts and behaviorist approaches to learning (Clark, Nelson, Sengupta & D'Angelo, 2009; NRC, 2011).   Frequently, however, students are asked to develop an accurate scientific mental models that have no real-life referents and to incorporate invisible factors and complex abstractions (Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1991).

Historically, scientists and educators have used computational models to investigate and explore complex systems and phenomena. Tools that practicing scientists use to build computational models intended to visualize complex concepts and phenomena have been integrated into K-12 classrooms in order to help students learn and understand complex science topics (Edelson, Gordin , & Pea, 1999; Linn et al, 2006; Shen & Linn, 2011; Korakakis et al, 2008). This is due, in part, to educators recognizing that model-based reasoning can facilitate the development of mathematical-scientific understanding of the natural world (Gobert & Buckley, 2000; Author, 2002;  Lehrer & Schauble, 2006; Lehrer, Horvath, & Schauble, 1994; Passmore, Stewart & Cartier, 2009; Penner, Lehrer, & Schauble, 1998; Sabelli, 1994).  Further, the growing power of computers, coupled with a reduction in cost and the availability of inexpensive or free modeling software, have created opportunities to engage students in scientific inquiry through constructing computational models of scientific phenomena (Sabelli, 1994; Passmore, Stewart & Cartier, 2009; Jackson, Dukerich, L., & Hestenes, D., 2008; Hestenes, 2010).

Leveraging Games in Science Learning

Support for games to learn has grown into a major focus of research over the last decade (e.g. Gee, 2003;2007; Dumbleton & Kirriemuir, 2006; Kirriemuir & McFarland, 2004; Mayo, 2009; NRC 2011; Young et al, 2012). In reviewing the literature, we looked for specific instances of research-based games, which differ from virtual worlds. Games take advantage of goal directed advancement within game play, while 3D virtual worlds  are more immersive, academic play-spaces that allow for  inquiry and discovery learning (e.g. Barab et al, 2007; 2008; Kettlehut et al, 2006; Dede et al, 2005; NRC 2011). Our review of the literature involved a two phase search.  The initial search examined the field using a variety of library databases (e.g. ERIC, Academic Search Premier, Psyc ARTICLES, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, PsycINFO) and back searches from the reference lists of gathered articles (i.e. examining the reference list from one article to additional articles). The search terms that were utilized included video game, game, education, science education, and gaming. The second phase of the search included online searches (e.g. Google Scholar). We eliminated all studies that involved virtual environments including studies that pertained to Quest Atlantis  or River City.

What we found was that research has demonstrated that games that are well designed can provide effective scaffolds for students' learning (Clark, Nelson, Sengupta, & D'Angelo, 2009; NRC, 2011; Young et al, 2012).  Other studies argued that computer games can promote higher order thinking and learning through interactive play and dialogue (Annetta, 2008; MacDonald & Hannafin, 2003; Mayo, 2007;2009; Young, et al, 2012); promote learning and engage students in a way that helps them to make sense of their world (Author, 2009; Williamson & Facer, 2004; Mayo, 2007;2009; Young et al, 2009); and yield a potential increase in positive learning experiences (Authors, 2011; Collar & Scott, 2009; Kettlehut et al, 2006; Kebritchi et al, 2008; Mayo, 2009; McClean et al , 2001; Young et al, 2012).  The National Science Foundation's Panel on Cyberlearning (2008) and the American Federation of Scientists (2006) further supported these ideas through their reports that digital games offer a powerful tool to support student learning, transforming both STEM disciplines and K-12 education. Their findings were re-iterated in a special issue of Science (Hines, Jasny & Mervis, 2009). 

According to the report in Science (2009) , the stakes and potential for the use of games in science education are high; while approximately 450,000 students graduate with STEM bachelors degrees, WHYville engages over 4 million subscribers with the dominant demographic being 8-to-14 year old females (Mayo, 2009).  In this context, a single video game application has a much more expansive outreach than traditional education.  This posits  the question “is it possible to expand the reach of STEM education with the use of video games as the medium (Mayo, 2009, p. 79)” particularly with respect to middle school students? .........

Papers and Presentations

Anderson, J.L. & Barnett, M. (2013) Learning physics with digital game simulations in middle school science.Journal of Science Education and Technology.

Anderson, J. & Barnett, M. (2011) Using video games to support pre-service teachers learning of  basic physics principles. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 20(4) 347-362.

Anderson, J. & Barnett, M. (2010). Using Video Games to Support Pre-Service Elementary Teachers Learning of Basic Physics Principles. Paper presented at the International Conference of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching. Philadelphia, PA. March 2010.

Anderson, J. & Barnett, M. (2009). Using video games to support pre-service teachers learning of basic physics principles - A Pilot Study. Paper presented at the Annual International Conference of the American Educational Research Association , April 13-21, 2009. San Diego, CA.

Anderson, J. (2010). The Impact of Using Video Games and /or Virtual Environments in Pre-Service Elementary Teacher Science Education. Paper presented at the International Conference of Learning Sciences. Chicago, IL. June/July 2010.