A number of recent reports make it clear that the United States is losing ground on key indicators of innovation and progress because of its poor performance in teaching math and science. Pre-college education, in particular, is lagging well behind its mandate to education all children to higher standards especially in areas that prepare students for science, technology, engineering, and mathematic. Therefore, developing educational practices and settings in our K-12 classroom becomes extremely important; especially the ones that promote 21st century skills and help learners build up their “habit of mind” for scientific reasoning and inquiry.
Computing has made possible profound leaps of innovations and imagination, resulting in fundamentally new ways of science and engineering practice. This paradigm shift has a significant impact on the skills needed for a diverse science and engineering workforce who can bring the power of computing-supported problem-solving to an expanded field of endeavors. However, our education has not kept pace with this evolution, especially at the K-12 level.
Environmental sustainability has become increasingly prevalent in teaching, valued as not only a motivator for responsible behavior, but also a wonderful context for students to be engaged in developing 21st century skills for the challenges of sustainable future.
Inspired by these general remarks, this paper presents a scaffold approach that develops and implements a virtual reality (VR) game system, called SustainCity, to infuse cyberinfrastructure (CI) learning experiences into classrooms of secondary education. In particular, a series of project-based VR games of future sustainable city design is being developed to engage pre-engineering students in CI-enhanced and -enabled science and engineering discovery. Our design explores way beyond the scope of other, commercial games, such as the GreenCity and the Mobility, with the following unique aspects: (a) visual modeling and simulation tools in the games provide insights into scientific concepts and phenomena, and help analyze data in a more visual and interactive way; (b) the networked educational environment transcends the boundaries of school-based education to leverage learning taking place anytime and anywhere, and promotes learning through collaboration; (c) metacognitive strategies and project-based learning advance learners’ strategic thinking and enhance their social, methodological and professional competence for a broader perspective on design; and (d) each game module is self-contained with a focus on particular engineering problem-solving to improve the city infrastructure, so it can be used as stand-alone contributions to a typical science, technology-based, or pre-engineering course or used with other game modules in a coordinated manner. The overarching goal of the work is to provide students an attractive and motivating environment where learning is no longer fragmented and de-contextualized, but crosses disciplinary boundaries throughout aspects of everyday life. The rich metacognitive strategies embedded in the games will further promote improved problem-solving skills. The detailed design and pedagogical strategies are discussed in the paper as a work in progress.