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Five Questions for Marjee Chmiel

By Lisa Gualtieri / August 2009

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Marjee Chmiel is the director of digital media for National Geographic's The JASON Project where she designs and produces a variety of video games and other interactive online applications that support The Jason Project's award winning online science curriculum. She is a doctoral student at George Mason's Graduate School of Education in Fairfax, Va.

Prior to joining National Geographic, Chmiel was the associate director of instructional design at Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) where she designed and managed professional development initiatives in technology integration and early-childhood literacy. She managed a partnership with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to develop interactive online learning to teach learning theory and early literacy best practices to childcare providers.

Chmiel also worked as a research assistant in science education and educational technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-chaired the Games, Learning, and Society Conference. She taught science education methods at the graduate and undergraduate level, and began her career as a high school chemistry and physics teacher.

Chmiel spoke to editor-in-chief Lisa Gualtieri, about The Jason Project and her insights on making education engaging for children, teachers, and adult learners.

Lisa Gualtieri: Why is National Geographic, and The Jason Project in particular, using e-learning and games to educate children and teachers?

Marjee Chmiel: The Jason Project has always embraced technology as a way to connect real scientists doing exciting research in the field with teachers students around the world. The Jason Project was founded in 1989 by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, the oceanographer and explorer who discovered the shipwreck of RMS Titanic. This prompted thousands of kids to write him letters, asking to join his next expedition. Technology was the way The Jason Project made that happen.

Given the changes in technology, the changes in students, and the changes in schools, we are always looking for ways to make that real-science connection stronger. Games have been a powerful way to do this. For example, in our ecology game, students get to use an ROV to visit the Gulf of Mexico and the oceans outside of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to recreate some of the research questions tackled by National Geographic explorers such as Bob Ballard , Enric Sala, and Greg Marshall. We collaborated closely with these scientists and worked to capture these environments as closely as possible. The game works as a virtual field trip, and it's a natural next step for us.

LG: What have been some of the recent initiatives that have been particularly exciting and successful?

MC: As we are starting to really gather a rich library of games, the most exciting thing for me has been to work with and talk to teachers using these games in schools. I hear from a lot of teachers that their return on time investment in these games is amazing. Kids get excited and talk about the content of what they are learning to other students, teachers, and parents. When we piloted one of our games last year, we did so on the last full day of school. It was a Friday in June and we had five class sessions of seventh graders who were dead silent, playing the game. I couldn't believe it.

Students get really into fact-checking our games as well, which I think is cool. They wouldn't do that if they weren't interested in what the games are saying. For instance, in the game we talk about pristine ecosystems, atolls that have never been inhabited by humans. Apparently, some of the students were skeptical about whether this was true, so they looked it up over the weekend and reported to their teacher the following Monday that there was such a place in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Some of the species we cover in that mission, such as monk seals and tiger sharks, really caught their imagination. They went home and tried to find more information about them. That is precisely what I think we all imagine when we talk about developing the habits of a life-long learner.

The premise of one of the missions in the ecology game is also that you are questioning a proposal put forward by a pretend, but respected, scientist, and I really do think that is a strength of how games can present science. This habit of skepticism and peer-review is vital to the way science works and is something we all need to be scientific literate, but it's often left out of textbooks and traditional curricular materials. There is something elegantly perfect about the idea that we use technology to teach those habits, and then the students turn around and use technology to verify our claims. I've never seen a textbook motivate students to do that.

The other piece that has been promising is the extent to which games allow themselves to be areas where students with certain learning disabilities can really thrive. Some students need their own private, little universe to learn, explore, make mistakes, or try new things. When you've got a variety of visual and audio cues helping you learn something, the content is just that much more accessible and students are imbued with this new confidence. We saw some really wonderful instances of this during our pilot testing.

LG: When I previously asked you about the three main lessons you have learned in your work on The Jason Project, the first you said is the importance of leveraging failure in the learning process rather than avoiding failure. Can you provide an example that illustrates the importance of this?

MC: I see this most readily with our Coaster Creator game. The idea behind that game is to build a rollercoaster track that puts a certain amount of energy in and allows the cars to disperse that amount of energy on their way out.

I don't think it's possible to get it right at the outset, and when middle schoolers sit down in front of the game, they seem to understand this. They tinker around, check the feedback they get from each design, and use it to inform their next try.

I'm surprised by how often adults will build a track and when the coaster car crashes or get stuck, they'll say, "I didn't get it right." I tell them that no one does the first time and they should try again. They usually get it a few tries later and get excited. The success is that much sweeter.

It's interesting for me to see how students who never knew a world before Nintendo readily embrace mistakes and move on without blinking while those of us who knew a world before Google still feel like "right" and "wrong" are two permanent states of knowledge.

LG: Your second lessons learned was that many traits that are squelched in school—for good reason—can be capitalized upon and exploited in games to increase engagement and learning. What are these traits and why is it beneficial to students to use them?

MC: Learners have certain traits that classrooms or traditional learning environments really aren't designed for, for instance, questioning experts or taking something apart. Those particular traits interfere with learning environments designed with efficiency in mind—traditional learning environments—but we have those traits precisely because they help us learn or they feed our need to know how something ticks, what the limitations of a system are.

Games are designed so they can absorb such "inefficient" or transgressive ways of knowing. Games allow learners to question an authority, take something apart, or be competitive. These natural tendencies we have, ones that can help us learn, don't need to be constrained in a game space. A game can capitalize on these items to help guide us to new knowledge.

Resilient Planet LG: The final lesson you mentioned was that no one should be tricked into learning but that learning opportunities, when done well, are fun, pleasurable, and effective. In particular you mentioned how textbooks provide the solutions to problems but people learn more when they discover their own solutions. Can you give an example of this and why it works?

MC: I think I was getting at two items here. The first is that there is a misconception that games trick people into learning. There is this notion that the learner is having fun and thus doesn't notice he or she is learning. But learning is inherently pleasant. People love solving problems, tackling puzzles, figuring things out, finding patterns, etc., People like learning. It's just a matter of context and motivation.

The second issue pertains especially to science education, but I suppose it's a comment on life-long learning as well. In our Operation: Resilient Planet game, for instance, students get to accompany scientists as they poke at current questions and concerns. They gather data and use it to present their case. They get to see the process of science being made. There is a misconception that science is composed of a series of facts that just somehow end up on the pages of our textbook. The takeaway from that manifests itself in a sort of scientific illiteracy.

By being part of the argument-making process, students don't simply learn the scientific principles, they learn where principles come from and how they are made. Imparting that understanding helps people understand that science is a living topic and arms them to understand new ideas and information as they come along. Games, because they are new, are a great space to think about how we arm learners with those types of skills.


  • Thu, 20 Dec 2007
    Post by Mike Gualtieri

    Firstly, I''d like to apologize in advance if my comment is not well taken. There are sincere apologies and insincere apologies. If sincerity of the apology is important, can sincerity be taught. Starbucks workers seem very sincere in their cheery disposition but maybe that was the result of some corporate training program. I hope that sincerity is something that is unlearnable by any means.