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Develop a wholly integrated curriculum structured around an engaging and motivating virtual scenario.

The seemingly ubiquitous acronym STEM testifies of the recognized value of interdisciplinary and integrated education. Might it be true, then, that an entirely integrated curriculum (one that connects not just STEM related subjects, but all subjects) would be the ideal? If so, the difficult question remains: How can you unify the disparate disciplines? One way might be by creating a virtual microcosm that provides the framework for holistic student learning.

For example, you could develop a computer program that casts students as a group of people stranded on an island; in order to escape, they must build an engine-powered airplane (developing the required understandings, abilities and technologies along the way). Each student could have an avatar "on the island," and would be responsible for their individual avatar's well-being and for the collective success of the group.

This scenario would provide an engaging backdrop for education and natural motivation to learn. And because being stranded on an island is a kind of microcosm of the human experience, you could easily tie in all different subjects, allowing for an entirely integrated curriculum.

  • Apr 23 2013: I'm definitely no expert on education, but here are my thoughts:

    I like the idea of an integrated education, but I think there may be some danger in making the scenarios too contrived: students are not likely going to face the problems of island life in their futures. I think education would be more effective in helping students prepare for a real world if it encouraged students to face real problems.

    For example, students may be asked to develop an iphone app to improve health care delivery. I imagine that the project could be set up so that students could develop research skills, solidify their understanding of math and science, learn to write persuasive proposals, and even gain experience presenting information to professionals. More artistically minded students could design the user interface of the app. Students could also discuss ethical and economic issues involved with their projects, allowing students to see practical application of the humanities and the social sciences.

    This is just an example, but my point is that by addressing real problems, teachers could create an integrated learning experience that allows students to see how all of the subjects they learn in school are applied in the real world.
    • Apr 23 2013: It seems either way the idea is to change learning from an ends to a means to an end. I agree that there is danger with the island scenario. But a more modern scenario can easily become just as contrived. The trick is allowing children to have a cause to learn for.

      Right now the motivation is college and a career and learning for learning's sake. These are not bad motivations. But I am in college and I still feel that most of what I produce is for the classroom. I believe we could and should introduce children from and early age into "the real world." (I am inspired by Luis von Ahn who has successfully created a different business model for learning a second language. In this model students actually translate the web into other languages as they learn a language. Because of this they pay nothing for their education, because they are providing a service.) I think a major problem in our early education is that teachers are experiencing the same isolation from the world that the students are. It is not until college that students interact with teachers that are actively involved the the field they teach. It seems students and teachers could benefit from being actively involved in the fields they teach and study. This would also mesh subjects together, because there are few professional fields that are as isolated as educational subjects seem to be. It seems possible (though perhaps far fetched right now) that education could actually become a profitable business where neither students nor teachers pays and all benefit.
      • Apr 23 2013: You described exactly what I was thinking when I said real-world problems. I don't think these problems should merely be simulated modern problems. I think teachers should work with local professionals to address real problems in their communities.

        As for the problem of teachers being isolated, I think you are right in that teachers who are active in their disciplines will be better able to involve children in those disciplines. However, I disagree that professional disciplines are not as isolated as school subjects. In academia, the concept of interdisciplinary collaboration is still fairly new and therefore sparsely implemented. On the other hand, businesses and NPOs usually require the collective effort of professionals from a variety of disciplines. Therefore, I believe that education would help students connect each of their subjects better if it encouraged students to work with local organizations. You might have been hinting at this when you talked about education becoming profitable, but I just wanted to clarify that point.

        I think we should also clarify the idea of education becoming a "profitable business". One issue I see with this is that profitable businesses have customers that they need to appeal to. This might not be a big deal in the von Ahn example, in which students, maybe unknowingly, produce a product while filling out worksheets. However, there may be other situations in which a certain subject might not be profitable, in a monetary sense. Should students be allowed to learn dance or to study literature even though it is not immediately profitable? I think we need to be careful that we balance giving children profitable things to do and helping children learn to be good citizens.
    • Apr 24 2013: I like the idea of using "real life" problems, and I think that is a valuable educational pursuit. However, I want to offer some justification for the island model: Although it may be somewhat contrived, by virtue of its microcosmic characteristics, it is perhaps infinitely adaptable to various different missions. These missions can reach beyond the local community and can allow for developing skills that might not ever present themselves in situations students would normally encounter (e.g. learn to communicate with the native island people and collaborate with them to establish a government). What's more, these "contrived" scenarios allow for the kind of broad learning we generally want for elementary and secondary education. I think you might sacrifice that breadth by only focusing on "real life" problems. Sure, students would develop valuable skills by completing various real life, practical projects, but they would rarely have the opportunity to learn, for example, about various kinds of governments, or anything at that fundamental level. Lastly, the island model is valuable because it is controllable, reproducible, and scalable. A whole school or an entire school district could adopt it as the foundation for their curriculum, and students and teachers could collaborate in a way that would be much more complicated with an exclusively "real life" curriculum.
  • May 4 2013: I think this is an interesting idea, and some have all read addressed the what is all ready out there.

    One challenge that science and STEM faces is agreement. Yes, there are program out there, but do all parties agree on the content?

    This has been the issue for standards in the states recently with science. When science standards are drafted, all major science fields feel that their content is important. And, their content is important, but at what level is it important for all students to know? For example, how would you balance physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and all the other sciences in this particular topic? Especially if all topic areas felt their content important and would not say that something was not as important?

    While teaching science I found that the issue was "everything was important" for all areas of science which is incredibly difficult for teachers to be experts and and teach and for students to become experts at and learn.

    That being said, I think there some very good resources all ready present that could be used for this particular task.
  • May 3 2013: Thank you for informing me about these things! I'm excited to look into them.
  • May 3 2013: Glad that I'm not the only one thinking this!
    There are three powerful tools in limited use today doing some of the things you are describing here:

    1. Minecraft EDU ( gives instructors the ability to teach about such diverse topics as history to logic in an engaging virtual environment. Teachers are equipped with with the ability to restrict their students' movements (if they need their attention), teleport them about from different points of interest, allow them to explore and to build, etc.

    2. SmartSparrow Adaptive Course Software ( I once heard this touted at "online class 2.0", Smartsparrow's format is one of the most intuitive softwares I have ever experienced. The lessons are delivered mostly by video, in small, one concept at a time clips. Almost every slide is a marvel of visual simulation programming, allowing students to tweak and experiment to their heart's desire. When it came to checking your answers on each slide, the computer was programmed to recognize more than right or wrong, giving advice if you made some of the more common mistakes. One time, I continued to blunder a particular question, so the software referred me back to a previous "experiment" simulation.

    3. Virtual Reality technologies, particularly the Oculus Rift ( VR has been used since the 90's for non-entertainment applications, such as treating phobias, chronic pain, PTSD or even helping to distract during painful medical treatment.

    Now with recent advances in mobile phone technology, VR is poised to be the next game-changer, with applications stretching even farther than it's predecessor.

    If VR were implemented in the educational setting, classes could visit places, visualize concepts and create in ways that were impossible two years ago. Not only that, but using a head-mounted display (HMD) like the Oculus Rift means that the instructor has complete control over their students' focus.
    • May 4 2013: Cameron, I love your input on this. These are some great resources for teachers and individuals to use. Not to mention that technology is increasing at an amazing rate and new types of VR are coming out which will continue to build on this idea.

      Of course, it is all about how it is applied with the students as a teaching tool. My only issue with Minecraft, and it is a cool little program, is that rarely is it used in the manner which you describe. More often it is used just to play. Though, that is an issue with the instruction not the tool.
  • May 3 2013: You are right! I taught US History in Jr. High for many years and have seen the power of simulation games.
  • May 2 2013: How about integrating History by requiring students to find scenarios from the past that will help them solve present group problems?
    • May 3 2013: I think this is a great idea! And I believe that you could find ways to similarly integrate any subject. That's the power of a microcosmic scenario like this.
  • Apr 25 2013: The idea of goal-based scenarios was central to the experiential software created by the Institute for Learning founded by Dr. Roger Schank. You might find the ideas in the hyperbook "Engines for Education" to be of interest.
    Your idea is a good start. There will certainly be students of any age that would find the idea interesting.You could build it with OPENSIM, Caspian Learning etc. or try a prototype in Second Life. Forget the profit motive or budget restraints. Just build it!
    Note that one need not confine oneself to computer software but could also create "educational games" along the lines of "Gaming:The Futures Language" by Richard D. Duke . In the late 1990s I checked out a ship simulator and destroyed a few docks myself. I would like to use Tractor Sim for some agricultural education work.
    You might also find R. Buckminster Fuller's "World Game" and John Hunter's "World Peace Game" interesting in terms of interdisciplinary work. (


    I would also suggest familiarizing oneself with the ideas regarding synthetic education found in "Sparks of Genius" by Robert Scott Root-Bernstein. If you see me on Genome Island in Second Life beside a plot of black tulips, please be sure to wave!
    P.S. Gilligan says he couldn't find a jet engine on the island so I think we are out of luck. The Professor says we need to find some Elephants or boars on the island like in Gilligan's "Age of Empires" game and start chopping trees. Good thing Gilligan had solar rechargeable batteries! Mary Ann says she might have seen a fuselage in the jungle. The Skipper wants to know what's for din-din? Can you eat those red berries over there?
  • Apr 24 2013: Interesting ideas, I've been involved since 2005 with Woogi World, a virtual world using gaming and social media technologies. It was designed as a learning plalform for 5-12 year olds that engaged and motivated kids to learn in a collaborative way. It's a free virtual kids community, they have had over 2 million kids register which requires either a teacher or parent to also register. The site is certified KidSafe and is monitored.

    Below is a quote from Tom Kalinske, co-founder of K12 Inc and former CEO of Mattel, Sega, Knowledge Universe and Leapfrog:

    “I was at Knowledge Universe when we founded to provide the best available physical content for home and charter schools. Eight years later that company has a market cap of $860 Million, but doesn't use technology well enough or have enough content on-line. Woogi World does”.

    The long term plan was to create the virtual community with significant game based educational content and then use the platform to deliver more formal curriculum using the same gaming, collaborative techniques. The free site has been used to deliver CyberHero (internet safety) to 1 million kids. It was used to deliver a civics course culminating in a kids vote for the 2008 US presidential election with 1.3 million kids voting the night before the actual election (results were within a fraction of a % of the actual election results). The site provides many learning experiences in fnance, entrepreneurship, citizenship, etc. And then it allows the kids to practice what they learn in a virtual world.

    The first formal curriculum is an ESL program that has shown pre/post test results with scores increasing on average from 68% to 92% for the material covered in the tests.

    Gamification, collaboration, motivation and just plain fun works for kids. But how do you get school districts to take notice and become part of the process??