Getting to the Roots of STEM with the Radix Endeavor

The island of Ysola abounds with mysteries. Strange plants and animals are plentiful and odd geometries are legion. The inhabitants of this place are plagued with problems, and only you can solve it. It will take an adventuring mind, an inquisitive spirit, and a good grasp of science to prevail.

Ysola is the setting of the Radix Endeavor. A Massively-Multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), the Radix Endeavor was set up as an edutainment tool for engaging junior high and high school students with the principles of STEM subjects. Individuals, friends, or entire classes can come together in the Radix Endeavor and apply classroom studies to fun and engaging missions, reinforcing textbook learning through hands on interaction.

Radix

The Creation of the Radix Endeavor

The Radix Endeavor was developed by the MIT Education Arcade and Filament Games starting in 2011. Funded by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it was designed to tap into the MMORPG craze in a way that would encourage students to start thinking of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math as something they can enjoy, rather than topics they have to struggle through. After three years of creation, the Radix Endeavor launched in 2014.

The Radix Endeavor is an MMORPG, something it shares with highly popular games like World of Warcraft or Guildwars. Like those games, players in the Radix Endeavor receive quests requiring they go out and engage with a persistent world, then return once the quest has been completed. Unlike World of Warcraft, the quests in Radix Endeavor require the use of science to complete them.

This works because the designers of the game created an island that is “Earth-like” but which is not actually Earth. As such students can’t simply proclaim that cows eat grass and complete a food chain based off of common knowledge, but instead have to actually apply their classroom learning to the game. A group of students would therefore have to actually head out and observe the earth-like but not earth-real flora and fauna to build their food chain, much like historical botanists in the Galapagos Islands did in the 19th Century.

The fact that it is an MMORPG means that students using the game to learn these processes can do so while interacting with others. Whether the student is one of thirty in a high school classroom or a home school student without siblings, there are peers they can cooperate with to complete the tasks. This allows instructors to team students up and direct their classes into specific projects regardless of class size.

As students complete tasks, their activities are recorded. Teachers can assign tasks to their students through a dashboard interface, then review the results after tasks are completed. The feedback they receive from students in this process can range from simple “task complete” status updates to individual student answers to questions assigned as part of the task. Chat privileges are locked to educator control, allowing teachers to limit interactions between students as needed to keep them on task or to open them up to mass participation with peers from other schools.

Gameplay

The Radix Endeavor plays much like other MMORPGs, allowing students already familiar with the genre to quickly get up and running. Using a customized character they create themselves, the students are able to move around in a 3D environment and interact with computer controlled cartoon characters. These computer operated Non-Player Characters (NPCs) will talk with students using pre-set scripts, at which point they can provide information or ask students to undertake quests for them.

Susannah Gordon-Messer, Education Content Manager for MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education program, released a video not long before the Radix Endeavor was released for public engagement. In it she demonstrated one of the quests. The student player in this particular quest has to build a fence to pen up glumbugs. To complete the task she has to measure the bug then use geometry to design and build appropriately sized and shaped pens. The video then continues as she goes on to explore the genotypes and traits of some of the flora and fauna of Ysola.

For those familiar with MMORPGS, the game interface and appearance are all recognizable. The tools and tasks are quickly and easily grasped in much the same way that weapons and quests are in commercial entertainments of the same nature. This means that most of today’s online game savvy teenagers would quickly be able to move past learning how to play the game and begin engaging with the learning it is meant to foster.

Edutainment Value

While it would be easy to say that Radix Endeavor provides an entertaining platform that improves student retention of key STEM concepts, I wanted some first hand evidence that it was in reality both fun and educational for its target audience. Fortunately, I had the perfect lab assistants for the task. Their names are Shenandoah (age 18), Maria (age 16), Honor (age 14), and Jamie (age 12).

My daughters, already MMORPG veterans, took to the Radix Endeavor like fish to water. From the creation of their own personal cartoon representations to the completion of multiple tasks they showed the same enthusiasm they usually reserved for attacking trolls and bandits with magic spells in other games. Sitting on the couch and watching them as they played or watched over the shoulder of whichever sister was playing at the time they were fully engaged and having a blast.

There were moments of frustration. A few of the geometry tasks were advanced enough to frustrate the 12 year old. This, however, was overcome when the 16 year old stepped in to assist. Soon the frustration was over and the fun was continuing on. In fact, there were times I had trouble getting the 12 year old to quit out of the game to go do household chores. Her sisters were no better. They were obviously enjoying themselves.

Clearly, it had the entertainment portion of the edutainment concept down pat. But what about the education portion?

I hadn’t enrolled myself as a teacher, so I didn’t have access to the teacher dashboard or any of the lesson plans that participating teachers can use before, during, and after students enter the Radix Adventure. This meant I was not able to either prepare my daughters to learn specific topics or to use the built in tools to evaluate their learning. Instead I simply had to do things the old fashioned way. I grilled them verbally.

The results were positive. Asking about the principles behind such concepts as selective breeding to strengthen dominant or recessive traits in animals and plants, they clearly had grasped the concept. Even though I hadn’t taught them about it in advance, they were able to think about it as a game process and use it to problem solve. “I need result X. In order to get it I need to understand Y and how it relates to Z.”

If they were able to describe these things to me just from playing the game, I shudder to think what they would have been capable of had I taught them in advance. It may be an exaggeration to say that they are now probably a bag of fertilizer away from being able to start developing a twenty foot tall Venus fly trap to guard the front walkway, but they certainly know the scientific principles behind what it would take.

They also pointed out that, even though they got it, it wasn’t so easy they could complete tasks without being mentally engaged. Maria, my eloquent 16 year old described it like this. “You don’t just zombie through the game. Some of the quests can be hard enough that asking a parent or teacher for help can be necessary.” In order to be able to accomplish tasks within the game she actually had to pay attention and think about the tasks. Not only were the girls learning the STEM concepts behind the game, they were also having to learn to engage with the subjects mentally.

My youngest, Jamie, reinforced the fact that the Radix Endeavor is both entertaining and educational. “It’s fun and it’s definitely a learning experience. I used a graph to learn about genetics. The graph is a DNA graph where you can see all possible things that can come from it.” While filling out and studying the graph was fun, it was the product she got from this project that really thrilled her. “If you breed them or plant them you usually get what was shown.”

When I was a child I had to spend weeks doing this using flowers on the classroom windowsill. She was able to do it in minutes, and didn’t kill any of the flowers in the process. I’ll be honest, I’m a bit jealous.

The Radix Endeavor passes the edutainment test with high marks. Even without the classroom portion of the program, my four girls did learn, and did so while having fun with a game they kept coming back to.

Requirements

The Radix Endeavor was designed from the start to be a product for the educational masses. It is dual platform, allowing it to be run on any school computer that has either Windows 7 or higher or Mac OS 10.6 on up. Broadband Internet access is necessary for the students to engage with the “Multiply Massive Online” aspects of the game, but computers that do not have access to the internet can still run the game in a single-player mode.

While many online tools and applications require some sort of software or user fees for access, the Radix Endeavor is available for free online. Further, it is currently in an open testing phase. Teachers are being actively pursued to help test the limits and usability of the game through participation at one of three tiers. A fourth tier is available to educators in the New England states, making them eligible for a stipend at the end of testing. All participant educators will be asked to complete surveys and, depending on their level of participation, may be asked to participate in interviews or allow researchers access to student results. For more information on teacher participation, or to get involved, start here.

The Radix Endeavor is still in the testing phase, though it has been released to the public for use. This means that it is still potentially subject to change. Even with that, however, it is already demonstrating its usefulness in the STEM classroom. Expect it in a classroom near you soon.