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An enterprise simulation platform for education:
Building a world game for pre-college students with Microsoft ESP

David Gibson and Susan Grasso
Published July 2008

On this page:

Research and development vision
Games for learning
Theoretical frameworks
Digital game- and simulation-based learning
Informal approaches to the cyberinfrastructure of science education
An integrated framework of technological tools
Recent cognitive science findings and learning theories
Copyright and citation information for this article


David Gibson and Susan Grasso describe the aims and theoretical foundations of the Global Challenge World Game project. The Global Challenge World Game is intended to provide pre-college students the opportunities for self-directed learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Using the Microsoft ESP visual simulation platform, the World Game will provide students with an intensive, immersive three-dimensional experience designed to help them develop understanding of the complex nature of global systems that are involved in meeting such challenges as climate change and the future of energy. The vision is to capitalize on computational science, simulation, and telecommunications tools to create powerful informal science learning opportunities. The use of a three-dimensional virtual world simulator powered by the new Microsoft ESP platform combined with innovative practices in informal e-learning will offer powerful new ways for K-12 students and teachers to learn to think in a structured fashion, work with large data sets, model complex processes, and share resources.

Stacey hops into her Explorer Capsule for an unguided exploration of Earth. From her vantage point, flying high in the stratosphere or skimming Earth’s surface, she stops wherever she wishes to observe an animal, chat with a friend, or simply enjoy the view. She observes the weather patterns in the Caribbean, watches melting glaciers over Greenland, sees people and machines scurrying across war-torn regions, and begins to appreciate some of the complexities our world faces.

While flying over New Zealand, Stacey notices herds of wild horses running across the open landscape. She is a horse lover, so she moves in to take a closer look. Landing in the middle of a large field busy with soldiers on training maneuvers, she overhears an officer complaining: “Those Kaimanawa mares are interfering with our war games. They need to be controlled! Get someone on this or kill them!” Near the edge of the field, Stacey also sees two Department of Conservation ecologists surveying plant species, making notes, and pointing. Drawing near, she hears one of them remark, “The horses have damaged these native plants to the brink of extinction.” Stacey has never seen plants like this before.

Clicking on the horses, Stacey becomes one of them. Her actions are now constrained by Kaimanawa horse behavior. Other horses are in the field with her, and she senses that other online users have transformed into horses and joined in. The herd is disturbed and running. Stacey forms an impromptu international team with students from China and Korea who are playing as other horses. She goes where they go, eats what they eat, and talks to them about those strange plants. Noticing a nearby sign that reads “Mission,” she clicks on it and reads:

The International Council on Global Challenges seeks to resolve the issue of the feral Kaimanawa horses in New Zealand. Your help is requested. To be successful, you must within five days:

1. Explain to the Council whether and why you believe the Kaimanawa wild horses should be saved.
2. Design a management plan that preserves the wild horse population while addressing societal and environmental concerns.

Will you accept this mission?

Stacey is beginning to understand that there is in this virtual environment a dynamic conflict between human, animal, and plant life that could involve her in any role — even as a plant. As she tries out each role, she is using technology, learning new science concepts, and solving problems.

This scenario, one of several that would appear in an envisioned Global Challenge World Game, shows how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning might be enhanced by engaging students with local and global systems in a realistic virtual earth via a multiuser virtual environment (MUVE). The focus of the World Game will be to engage K–12 students in authentic, immersive pursuits that deepen their scientific understanding in a three-dimensional simulation environment. The vision is to capitalize on computational science, simulation, and telecommunications tools to create powerful informal science learning opportunities. The use of a three-dimensional virtual world simulator powered by the new Microsoft ESP platform, combined with innovative practices in informal e-learning, will offer powerful new ways for K–12 students to learn to think in a structured fashion, work with large data sets, model complex and emergent processes (Colwell 2002), and share resources. In what follows, we provide a more detailed overview of the development of the Global Challenge World Game and discuss its anticipated benefits as a learning tool as well as the theoretical frameworks that inform its design.

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Research and development vision

While most U.S. schools introduce students to earth science in only one course, usually in the eighth or ninth grade, the next generation faces a host of urgent, complex, and globally linked scientific issues, including climate change and the future of energy. Such issues are arising at a time when enrollments in science programs have been decreasing and U.S. performance in science and mathematics has begun to lag behind our global neighbors. There is little evidence that schools can change quickly enough to prepare their students to address these issues and to adjust to the rapidly changing content, culture, and nature of scientific discovery in a globally connected world. Thus, we are proposing to enhance school-based learning with a game-like, Web-based delivery system for learning science, using technology, creating engineered solutions, and applying mathematics in realistic settings. Our rationale is that such a system best fits the next generation, that much can be accomplished through the self-directed and self-motivated inquiry found in games and simulations, and that the delivery system is both scalable and flexible.

The project is in an early stage of planning. The vision and goals of the project have been established by interdisciplinary teams drawn from science education and evaluation, engineering and research, informal science education, and business, and funding for the first stage of development is being sought from public and private foundations and individual sources (Exhibit 1). The goal is to develop a technology and design process for adapting existing STEM materials into a three-dimensional online game and simulation learning experience.

The development plan relies on three components: a new technology, existing curriculum materials, and an active worldwide network of K–12 students participating in online learning. The new technology is the Microsoft ESP platform for visual simulation, released in November 2007 (Exhibit 2). ESP allows simulations to be built more quickly and cost effectively than has previously been possible (Exhibit 3). The materials will be drawn from Lawrence Hall of Science’s exemplary Global Systems Science (GSS) curriculum. The topics selected for the initial development of the World Game include energy flow, climate change, ecosystem change, energy use, diminishing biodiversity, and population growth. GSS also provides a growing network of high school teachers and college education programs that will constitute a pool of early participants. An active worldwide network of students and additional learning materials will also come from the Global Challenge Award project (Exhibit 4).

The instructional activities and materials of the World Game will provide three-dimensional immersive online inquiry and discovery experiences in a virtual Earth. Each of the initial 20 curriculum units will take place in a game-inspired simulation setting aimed at students in grades 9 through 12 and intended for use either at home or in a classroom setting; units for middle school students will be developed later. Each unit will contain several missions roughly analogous to levels in video games. The purpose of the missions is to engage the imagination of young people and motivate them to acquire and demonstrate scientific knowledge as well as reasoning and collaboration skills. Each mission is anticipated to require up to five hours to master, broken up into 10–20 minute segments of self-guided play. The full scope of materials is anticipated to offer the equivalent of a full-year high school curriculum in integrated earth system and life sciences.

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Games for learning

Our proposal to build curriculum units around game-based learning experiences challenges basic assumptions of formal learning, such as those that underlie the traditional role of teachers in the classroom. However, when pedagogy is freed from these assumptions, exciting innovations are possible that allow a multiplayer e-learning environment to infuse K–12 education with cutting-edge content (Morissette 2003; Dede et al. 2004; Galarneau and Zibit 2006; Gibson, Aldrich, and Prensky 2006). A digital game and simulation-based approach to STEM learning both accommodates student preferences and supports the core cognitive processes of learning.

Millions of students have now grown up with ubiquitous access to computers and the Internet, which has both changed how they learn and influenced how they spend their free time (Prensky 2001; Beck and Wade 2004). Meanwhile, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are currently taught at the K–12 level in much the same way as they were decades ago — that is, by disseminating content in the classroom, including an increasing number of online classrooms. The good news is that educators can employ new technologies to target core cognitive processes in ways that are highly compatible with how today‘s students would rather learn. For example, research shows that, in order to learn effectively, students need to construct a mental model — their understanding — from their own questions and experience, and they need to share, compare, and adapt their understanding with feedback from a larger expert community (NRC 2000; Llewellyn 2002; Hammerman 2006). Digital game and simulation-based approaches support these processes while utilizing the fun, excitement, and highly motivating nature of self-directed game play to achieve serious learning goals.

In addition, the low cost of replicating digital learning experiences can meet the need to scale the delivery of learning to very large numbers of students (Mayo 2005). The scaling features of a simulation-based solution support widespread use, offering the possibility of reaching large numbers of potential beneficiaries. In addition, online scalability can overcome some of the barriers of time, training, and administrative support presented by other pedagogical approaches. With built-in user tracking and analysis driving program adaptability, learning units can be individualized for both learning and assessment (Exhibit 5), increasing the effectiveness of learning and reducing the time needed to attain targeted outcomes.

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Theoretical frameworks

Four theoretical frameworks underpin the vision for this project:

1. Digital game- and simulation-based learning
2. Informal approaches to the cyberinfrastructrure of science education
3. An integrated framework of computational science, telecommunications, and social networking tools
4. Recent cognitive science findings and learning theories

Digital game- and simulation-based learning

Digital game- and simulation-based learning present powerful opportunities for bringing cutting-edge content and pedagogy into K–12 education, thereby increasing the number of women and underrepresented populations entering STEM fields (Mayo 2005) and reversing persistent declines in the number of young people entering scientific majors and careers in the United States (COSEPUP, PGA 2006). Games can help achieve these goals by engaging students with a highly motivational structure that teaches as it entertains. Games and simulations attract attention and sustained effort more effectively than other e-learning technologies and far more effectively than traditional educational delivery methods (Aldrich 2004; Bonk and Dennen 2005; Gibson, Aldrich, and Prensky 2006). Recent studies of serious games, for example, indicate that highly invested players (of both genders and all races) spend 15 or more hours per week and up to 45 hours at each level in such games (Beck and Wade 2004; Gee 2004; Becker 2006). Serious games offer an attractive medium that not only elicits playful rather than laborious effort, but also motivates repeated attempts to fulfill learning tasks, allows students to see constant visible improvement of knowledge and skills, and gives opportunities for students to reflect on what they have learned (Prensky 2001; Gee 2004).

The World Game will engage gamers and catalyze learning by using motivational strategies common to serious games (Exhibit 6). Each activity will take advantage of the simulation environment to create intensive, immersive learning experiences; for example, a student may study water resource issues while rafting down rapids or learn about meteorology by riding along as an assistant to scientists probing the eye of a hurricane. Students will be rewarded for successful missions with points, level advancement, prizes, and scholarship funds. A leader board will display students’ points and prizes and allow comparisons with others. As students play each level, they will create artifacts — such as mini reports, field notes, data tables, graphs, and reflective journal entries — that will earn points toward advancement to higher levels. As they create these artifacts, students will be using some of the same Web-based tools and resources that scientists use, thus accessing a fuller network of knowledge outside the space of the game.

Simulation-based games can also engage some of the skills needed to learn about and solve the complex problems scientists face. The global scale of problems, such as climate change and the future of energy, and the variety of fields of knowledge needed to address these challenges require interdisciplinary efforts devoted to complex problem-solving tasks (Grasso 2002). Playing games involves solving highly complex problems by requiring players to understand both the underlying game engine or simulation and the immediate situation. Games also have the potential to embed several layers of concepts and foster the development of interdisciplinary knowledge and crossdisciplinary skills.

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Informal approaches to the cyberinfrastructure of science education

The second theoretical framework for the design of the proposed World Game draws on the wisdom and practice of informal science education and the Web-based tools and resources that make up the broader cyberinfrastructure of STEM and STEM education. While formal science education often utilizes specialized online research tools to support student projects and activities, informal science education reaches large numbers of people each year through museums, Web sites, and CD- and Web-based games. This latter mode of instruction is called “informal” because it involves learners volunteering and directing their own experiences, in contrast to traditional, teacher-directed e-learning frameworks. Khan’s e-Learning Framework (Morrison and Khan 2003) is an example of a framework that supports informal and flexible learning activities and supports learning with well-designed learning resources in a globally and culturally sensitive learning environment. In informal learning, students follow their intrinsic interests and curiosity; they explore, handle things, create imaginative stories, undertake and complete tasks that they select, and interact with people, events, and objects as they see fit (Crane et al. 1994). Students are drawn to this kind of learning because it is engaging and interactive, and they can return at any time and pick up where they left off (Jolly, Campbell, and Perlman 2004). These features, which are also found in serious digital game- and simulation-based learning environments (Prensky 2001), offer freedom of choice and access to tools and resources that allow a range of experiences, such as fantasy trips to Mars or the chance to solve mysteries in science labs.

The World Game will engage an informal learning structure by allowing students the freedom to play or simply to explore. The game environment is being designed to offer many possible paths to equally valid solutions. Students will be free to choose what to explore, where to go, and in what order to pursue tasks and activities. The organizing principle of the experience will not be what someone wants to teach them, but what they want to do and whether and how they want to research further and build on their own ideas to win points and prizes. No single course of study will be privileged over another, meaning that there will be no single right way to win the game so that a student‘s intrinsic interests can serve as starting points.

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An integrated framework of technological tools

The World Game will rely on a new integration of tools and services as the third framework for its design. This integration, which can be broadly characterized as a combination of advanced computational science tools with new telecommunications tools, supports the social networks needed to conduct scientific inquiry (Panoff 2006). Computational science tools are also necessary for understanding the new basics of science, which require the representation of large data sets and complex systems. Topics such as nanotechnology, proteomics, fuel cells, bioinformatics, biodefense, gene therapy, alternative fuels, green technology, graph theory, and others have been illuminated and made clearer due to advances in representing and understanding the large data sets that have become a mainstay of modern science. The World Game will support the creation, representation, and use of large data sets and allow for the presentation of complex systems (Exhibit 2).

New telecommunications tools in the game will go beyond e-mail, blogs, and online databases to incorporate Semantic Web methodologies and support for social networking and team learning. Social networking phenomena such as Ning, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Facebook, and YouTube illustrate the power of the new levels of telecommunication integration available in MUVEs. The power of social networks springs from the thousands of individual users who work together on a common project, whether that be a definition in Wikipedia, a film series in YouTube, or a professional contact list in LinkedIn. Similarly, the integration of social network technologies within massively multiplayer online games can be seen in World of Warcraft, where social groups called guilds are formed to accomplish challenging tasks. The World Game will provide such social groups to introduce students to group work and peer-review practices with an integrated toolset that combines powerful, interactive analytical and visualization methods with discussions, chats, instant messages, and blogs. Examples of this sort of integration can also be seen in sites such as Many Eyes and the newly released Google gadget Motion Chart.

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Recent cognitive science findings and learning theories

The integration of game-inspired instructional design, informal science education, advanced visualization and analytic tools, and social networking capabilities was envisioned based on findings from cognitive science and learning theories. The review of learning theories presented in the National Research Council‘s How People Learn (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000) supports the need for a balance between content- and inquiry-based learning called for in National Science Education standards (NRC 1996). Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) emphasize four primary mechanisms and contexts of learning:

1. The characteristics of the learner
2. The nature of the content
3. The role of a community in shaping learning
4. The integration of ongoing feedback and assessment

The learning environment, according to Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000), needs to be contextualized within real situations and embedded in real communities of peers and experts who communicate and shape one‘s thinking. Finally, the learning environment needs to be laced with ample, timely, and accurate expert feedback to guide the development of knowledge-in-action (Donovan, Bransford, and Pellegrino 1999).

Reflecting an awareness of the student needs and learning mechanisms highlighted by this literature, the World Game will address the National Science Standards by facilitating inquiry-based, constructivist learning methods (Exhibit 7). The game will be personalizable and adaptable to many different kinds of learners and structured to reflect how scientists actually work with existing knowledge to develop new knowledge through modeling and experimentation. Embedded telecommunications and social network tools will provide for the development of a community of peers and experts and connect students to the real-world contexts of working scientists while the assessment mechanisms and the structure of the game will provide constant feedback.

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The Global Challenge World Game aims to provide K–12 students with a game- and simulation-based learning environment that helps them develop an understanding of the complex nature of global systems that are involved in challenges such as climate change and the future of energy. The project will provide an online Web-based environment that invites students to explore, encourages informal learning, and rewards the acquisition of STEM knowledge. Moreover, the World Game will ask students to apply what they know while working collaboratively in international teams and to document their explorations and understandings as they seek solutions to real global challenges. In doing so, the World Game promises to prepare students for a future in which the stakes are higher than ever before in the game of scientific discovery.

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Copyright and citation information for this article

This article may be reproduced and distributed for educational purposes if the following attribution is included in the document:

Note: This article was originally published in Innovate ( as: Gibson, D., and S. Grasso. 2008. An enterprise simulation platform for education: Building a world game for pre-college students with Microsoft ESP. Innovate 4 (6). (accessed July 22, 2008). The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.
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David Gibson
Research Assistant Professor
University of Vermont

David GibsonDavid Gibson is a research assistant professor in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Vermont and executive director of The Global Challenge, an NSF-funded team- and project-based learning and scholarship program for high school students. The program engages small teams of students in studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in order to solve global problems.

His research and publications include work on complex systems analysis and modeling of education, Semantic Web applications and the future of learning, and the use of technology to personalize education. His book Games and Simulations in Online Learning outlines the potential for game- and simulation-based learning. He is creator of simSchool, a classroom flight simulator used for training teachers, which is currently funded by the U.S. Department of Education FIPSE program. His business, CURVESHIFT, is an educational technology company that assists in the acquisition, implementation, and continuing design of games and simulations, e-portfolio systems, data-driven decision making tools, and emerging technologies.

Susan Grasso
Global Challenge Award

Susan GrassoSusan Grasso is an environmental engineer and mother of four who is enthusiastically applying her diverse experiences in the environmental field to the promotion of innovative science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education opportunities for young people. Specifically, she is involved in the development of STEM curriculum for The Global Challenge program.

As an environmental consultant for over ten years, Grasso has experience in environmental impact assessments, site investigations, remediation technology evaluations, and environmental modeling. She has served as an environmental modeler for NOAA, an instructor of environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut, a member of the Natural Resources Commission in Tolland, Connecticut, and an active volunteer in public and private schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Grasso received undergraduate degrees in civil engineering and in environmental sciences engineering, both summa cum laude, from the University of Michigan. She also holds an MSE in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan.

©2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Microsoft and Microsoft ESP are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.

This white paper is for informational purposes only. Microsoft makes no warranties, express or implied, as to the information in this document.

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