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Cartoon Lips, Virtual Fashion and Physics

The interactive Web site Whyville lures girls into the world of science

July 08, 2002|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The mysterious spots began popping up without explanation on the digital faces of Whyvillians.

At first, the spots looked like freckles on the cartoon-like avatars of visitors to the science education Web site called Whyville. Then they developed into red acne-like welts. When users tried to chat, an electronic "ah-choo," courtesy of the site's San Marino-based programmers, wiped out their words.

Dubbed "Whypox," the plague was designed to trigger an interest in learning more about epidemiology and the spread of diseases. And it proved to be a terrific motivator on a site dominated by adolescent girls who are as image-obsessed in cyberspace as they are in the hallways of their junior high schools.

It also was an example of why an innovative attempt to mine the educational potential of the Internet is gaining international attention among adolescents and researchers alike.

The philosophy of Whyville (www.whyville.net) is what its founder calls "edu-tainment" because it taps the Internet's interactivity to get kids engaged in learning.

Some close watchers of Whyville worry, however, that users get so wrapped up in activities such as choosing lips and noses for their digital faces and chatting that science becomes secondary to socializing. Yet researchers also theorize that those aspects of Whyville help explain why more than two-thirds of its 225,000 registered users are female, most between 11 and 13.

That statistic "runs very counter to what we know about girls being interested in science and technology," said Yasmin B. Kafai, a UCLA researcher who studies computerized learning environments.

Educators say many girls lose interest in science starting in middle school, apparently because of misgivings about their math abilities and fears that they'll be seen as unfashionable nerds.

Computer use among girls drops off dramatically after age 13, experts say, citing a dearth of games and activities that don't involve speed, fighting or competition.

Whyville, launched in 1999, didn't start out with the intention of countering those trends. But its apparent success in capturing girls' attention has caught the eye of the National Science Foundation, which over the years has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to achieve that same goal.

Now the agency is underwriting a study to figure out the formula and how it can be improved upon in designing computer software, and even in setting up classrooms.

Caltech's Brian Foley, one of the researchers, says Whyville's winning combination includes noncompetitive games and activities, social interaction and, especially, the opportunity for girls (and boys) to create their own identities. "Those are things girls really appreciate and look for," Foley said. "It probably shouldn't have been a surprise that there were a lot of girls on there."

About 500 new users a day join Whyville's population. Although it's free and has no advertising, those willing to buy a Whypass for $4.95 a month get priority for accessing the site. That's important because Whyville has become so crowded that, for about 12 hours each day, more users want in than can be accommodated.

Those who succeed in entering see the face they've designed float into the 3-D Whyville town square. They can remain and chat with other users or they can visit popular gathering spots such as the town swimming pool, the "Sportsplatz" or the playground.

Or they can go shopping at the "mall"--a hugely popular activity on the site--for new face parts, virtual clothing or accessories, such as glasses or jewelry for their online persona, all drawn and "sold" by their fellow Whyvillians.

The coin of this realm is "clams," and they're earned in two ways: by engaging in one of the Web site's 12 science or four math activities or through profits generated by the sales of one's products. A third way--which Whyvillians came up with on their own--is for "newbies" to beg for handouts from the better-off "oldbies." Once someone has enough clams, she can buy a plot of land, build a house, decorate it and have friends over for chat fests.

One goal of the NSF study is to analyze how much the citizens of Whyville are actually learning about science through all those activities.

"Is it entertainment as a means of learning or is it just entertaining?" asked Ruta Sevo, who directs the NSF's program for gender equity in math- and science-related fields. "I doubt that no learning is happening, but the question is how much."

Consider the case of Whypox.

Just after Valentine's Day, the site's designers at Numedeon Inc., a privately held company, infected the online identities of a handful of the most frequent users with the pox. They also posted a memo on the site's bulletin board suggesting that users check out " 'what's new' at the Whyville version of the national Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention]."

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