Science & Technology

A Simulation for Future Scientists

Students conduct oceanic experiments in the UW video game Wake: Tales from the Aqualab.

A person is playing the smilulation game, Wake, on a laptop.

Wake represents new frontiers for game-based learning. SARAH MAUGHAN/UW SCHOOL OF EDUCATION

Imagine playing a video game where you navigate your submarine through a forested lagoon, identifying exotic species and learning about the food web there. That’s one of the activities in the most in-depth educational video game ever produced by UW–Madison’s innovative Field Day Lab, which represents new frontiers for game-based learning.

Wake: Tales from the Aqualab is an immersive game that teaches middle and high school students about scientific research practices through a narrative arc about an ocean-floor scientist.

“This is an important element to our design philosophy — to reach kids through their imagination,” says Sarah Gagnon ’08, creative director at Field Day Lab. “The game includes experiments and all kinds of science, but it also includes a compelling story and dream sequences. We wanted to create a game that explores the wonderful and vast world of terrifying creatures in the deepest parts of the ocean.”

Students conduct experiments such as gathering samples of oceanic flora and fauna and bringing them back to their lab for observation. As the game progresses, the experiments grow increasingly complex, and players earn experience points to “buy” additional equipment needed to complete more advanced inquiries. Before long, students are troubleshooting snags in their experiments and building out scientific models.

The web-based game is available to teachers, educators, and families on BrainPOP, an educational games website, and PBS LearningMedia. It aims to engage every student, even those who haven’t typically been interested in subjects like science, technology, engineering, or math.

“It’s one of a few projects of this size ever attempted,” says David Gagnon ’04, MS’10, director of Field Day Lab, which is based at the School of Education’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research. “The game has over 50 challenges across a dozen ecosystems with hundreds of individual species.”

Wake involved engineers, designers, educational researchers, 3-D artists, 2-D illustrators, a musician, and classroom teachers from across Wisconsin.

“Field Day has developed one of the deepest and most expansive science games we’ve seen yet, engaging students in experimentation and modeling,” says Michael Gi of BrainPOP. “From the beautiful art design to the thought and care put into the characters and mechanics, this game brings a sense of fun and wonder to budding scientists everywhere.”

Published in the Winter 2023 issue


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