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Virtual Playgrounds: Playing and Learning with Science in Multi Player Online Communities
by Yasmin Kafai & Michael Giang

Our analysis focuses on different activities available in Whyville, in particular casual, collaborative, and community science-related games, and the  potential they hold for science inquiry in informal settings.  In our evaluation, we were interested to find out where players spend their time and to what extent they become engaged in Whyville’s various science games.

Of Monsters and Sick Computers: Children’s Folk Conceptions of a Computer Virus
by Yasmin Kafai

This paper reports on a study in which 320 users experienced the outbreak of a virtual epidemic in an online multi-user virtual community. We investigated their understanding of a computer virus using surveys and design activities. The findings reveal that students have a mostly naïve understanding of a computer virus influenced by mythological or anthropomorphic perspectives; only few were able to describe computational elements. The 35 students who participated in a curricular intervention in addition to the virtual epidemic shared these naïve conceptions initially but developed more sophisticated views after the intervention.  Designs of a new virtual virus indicated that students were able to apply the terminology and concepts of epidemiology. The discussion addresses possible conceptual bridges between natural and computer viruses for learning of infectious diseases and with virtual epidemics.

Patterns of Engagement in Simulating a Virtual Epidemic
by David Feldon & Joanna Gilmore

The purpose of this study is to investigate the viability of a computer-based system for collecting and analyzing data from large-N microgenetic studies of scientific reasoning. Most studies of children’s scientific problem-solving strategies take place in classroom settings with established norms that homogenize student behavior. Small sample sizes and the limited range of settings limit the generalizability of the conclusions that can be drawn. The current study examined the problem-solving behaviors of 154 children using web-based science simulations. Of the participants who conducted genuine attempts using the simulations, 52 of the participants were members of a sixth grade science class that used the simulations as part of a curriculum unit on infectious disease and epidemiology while 42 of the participants were free-choice users of an informal science website. The data collected through the site and analyzed offline supported the hypothesis that previously reported patterns of scientific problem-solving do not represent the full range of scientific reasoning strategies that participants used when outside the classroom setting. Implications for the continued development of automated analyses of microgenetic studies and future research on children’s scientific thinking are discussed.

A Case Study of Participating in a Virtual Epidemic
by Nina Neulight, Yasmin Kafai, Linda Kao & Brian Foley

This study investigated students’ understanding of a virtual infectious disease in relation to their understanding of natural infectious diseases. Two sixth-grade classrooms of students between the ages of 10 and 12 (46 students) took part in a participatory simulation of a virtual infectious disease, which was integrated into their science curriculum. The results from our analyses reveal that after the integrated curriculum, students’ conceptual understanding of the causality of natural infectious disease improved; students perceived the simulation as similar to a natural infectious disease; and the immersive components of the simulation afforded students the opportunity to discuss their understandings of natural disease and to compare them to their experiences with the virtual disease. We found that while the virtual disease capitalized on students’ knowledge of natural infectious disease through virtual symptoms, these symptoms may have led students to think of its transfer more as an observable or mechanical event rather than as a biological process. These findings provide helpful indicators to science educators and educational designers interested in creating and implementing such online simulations to further students’ conceptual understanding.

The Value of Looks versus Health: Observations of Economic Interactions during a Virtual Epidemic
by Yasmin Kafai

In his recent book “Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games” (2005) Edward Castronova directs our attention to the economics in virtual worlds.  He argued that the economic structures of virtual worlds drive players’ interactions and even migrate into the real world as demonstrated in the case of avatar selling on Ebay. Children’ MMORPGs such as Neopets incorporate many similar economic features but have received far less attention; in particular, what concerns their educational applications.  For my presentation, I will examine an online community called Whyville.net which features currently more than 1.2 million registered users between the ages 10-16.  The users visit the site to participate in science activities, chat with each other, and sell, purchase, and trade avatar improvements.  Occasionally, players experience the outbreak of a virtual epidemic, called Whypox, impacting their chat interactions through replacing chat chunks with sneezing and covering their avatars with red pimples.  Unlike in adult MMORPGS, players’ avatars in Whyville don’t die or loose power; rather features central to their community interactions (such as chatting and looks) are impacted or constrained for a limited time.

My first set of observations will focus on the general economic interactions before the outbreak of the virtual epidemic in Whyville and establish a baseline of economic activities.  Of particular interest are the ways in which young players manage their resources, what value they assign to their wealth, how they participate in trading interactions and for what reasons they provide charitable contributions. Most prior research has focused on children’s understanding of economics in general but has not examined their interactions in virtual economies. The second set of my observations will focus on economic interactions during scarcity using the recent flu vaccine shortage as an inspiration. Before the outbreak of the epidemic, vaccines against Whypox were distributed to one third of the active Whyville population. All Whyville users were informed that they needed two additional doses of vaccine to achieve immunity before the outbreak. In addition to tracking their vaccination intake and vaccine trading interactions, 276 online participants were also surveyed before and after the Whypox outbreak about their understanding of vaccination, their pricing strategies and willingness to spend resources for purchasing vaccines.

Initial analyses indicate that vaccination intake was often below or above the recommended effective dosage emulating behaviors observed in the real world.  Trading prices for vaccine doses fluctuated widely in the beginning with Whyvillians using different strategies to determine their fair market value.  The goal of these and further analyses is to contribute to the literature on children’s understanding of economics within virtual worlds and to understand better how to harness these aspects for the design of educational interventions.


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