This Demonstration Project will leverage recent research into the socio-emotional mechanics of online collaboration and multi-player game development, and the existing social networking structure of BuddyPress, to create a novel educational game that incorporates bioinformatics and cyberinfrastructure (CI) concepts aimed at middle school and early high school students. Interest in and participation in STEM fields and CI in the US is declining, specifically with regard to underrepresented minorities and women. It has been shown that the loss of interest in STEM fields often occurs as early as middle school, and additionally, that interest in such fields must be generated early for their appeal to continue into the undergraduate level and beyond. Given current K-12 funding constraints, it can be difficult for teachers to spend one-on-one time with students to encourage them to learn about cyber-technology and problem solving.

Many educational games have been developed in recent years with a social networking component that have reached audiences of varying sizes. However, few of these have been designed specifically to teach CI concepts. Further, it is not yet clearly understood exactly what makes an educational game compelling, nor what elements must be designed into a social networking game to enable it to spread widely and have a long lifetime. The role of affect or emotion in computing and in game technology is only recently coming to the forefront. Recent studies have demonstrated that people play games because of the way they stimulate their emotions. Researchers have identified key areas of game-induced emotions and specified means to design game mechanics to evoke each of these emotions.

This approach is novel not only because it will teach bioinformatics and CI, but because it focuses on eliciting emotions in a multi-player environment. The PIs will utilize these emotions to enhance peer-to-peer learning, and analyze the outcomes of the player experience. This work will be additionally informed by the PI?s previous research into the socio-emotional aspects of online collaboration among children and in CI for scientific collaborations. Further, the research team will leverage the existing social networking structure of BuddyPress (, an open source social networking platform that has been downloaded over 392,000 times, to facilitate game development. By linking collaboration, positive emotions, and social networking to the educational component of the game, the team will show students that cyber problem solving can be fun and engaging. They will expose more young people to CI concepts and generate more interest in STEM careers at a critical age where young people are defining their self-identity.

Intellectual Merit. This project will make novel empirical and conceptual contributions to research in educational social networking game development and the educational component of eScience and CI. Empirically this project will provide an understanding of how young people use and adopt collaborative educational games, how they become emotionally involved in the subject matter, and how to design such games to support multiple purposes. Conceptually this project builds on the PI's previous research on architecting scientific CI and researching the emotional dimensions of online collaboration. This will create a framework for understanding how emotions can be leveraged to develop non-traditional means of CI education.

Broader Impacts. The game will not only leverage social networking to expose larger numbers of young people to CI and bioinformatics problem solving and directly motivate students to become interested in CI/bioinformatics careers, but it will also inform, support, and stimulate the development of future educational games to support CI learning. By developing a deeper understanding of what makes a game popular, and by the application of this understanding to a social networking CI educational game, this project will provide unique and timely insights into how to engage a broader community of young students in STEM fields. To increase the participation of underrepresented minorities and women in the project, the team is leveraging the services of the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR) to provide outreach specifically to teachers and students in underrepresented groups. The long-term benefits of this research to society include the uptake of concepts of cyber problem solving specifically among young underrepresented minorities and women, and the production of conceptual models that will give better understanding of the larger relationships between people, educational games, and infrastructural computational technologies more generally.

Project Report

In this project, a team at the University of Washington designed the educational video game MAX5 as a means to engage youth in the types of information technology (IT) tools used to process, analyze, and visualize data in the biological sciences (collectively called bioinformatics). As the use of these IT tools become more commonplace in a range of scientific careers, it is important to introduce young people to these concepts in an emotionally compelling manner early on in their educational experience. Given the high percentage of American teens that play video games, gaming offers a promising way to inspire interest in science and technology concepts and careers. This project addresses how diverse populations of youth use and adopt gaming features, applying lessons learned to our design and development of the science game MAX5. In the game MAX5, players work together to stop a lethal influenza outbreak, collecting DNA samples and using simulations of IT tools for science, including the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool to find DNA sequence matches in a database. In addition to making appropriate decisions specific to the analysis of biological data, the game incorporates an interdisciplinary approach by including tasks that require players to more broadly manage computing resources. We worked directly with a diverse group of high school youth as co-designers over the life of the project to empower them in design processes. Graduate and undergraduate university students mentored the youth in the technical and scientific concepts used in the game, and worked side-by-side with them to create and implement design elements and game mechanics. Seven students (4 female) from five different public high schools in the Seattle, WA area participated as co-designers of the game, participating in all aspects of design and development, including the creation of game mechanics, narrative elements, level designs, graphic design, and contributing programming code. While many educational games engage young people in the evaluation process, few work extensively with them over a longitudinal process as co-designers. We found that many of the unique elements of the game and our focus on integrating different styles of play resulted from this unique collaboration with the teenagers. Additionally, this design process facilitated connections in groups across the K-12 and the university levels that often remain isolated, and the university students were able to serve as role models for future career pathways in science and technology fields. To date, the game has been made available on our website,, played by over 300 youth (ages 13 – 19), and has been integrated into lesson plans in science classrooms and workshops. Over two-thirds of these classrooms hail from one of the most socio-economically and ethnically diverse school districts in the Seattle area, with the majority of the students in this district qualifying for free or reduced lunch programs, and 20% qualifying for Transitional Bilingual Services. Our evaluation of gameplay found both quantitative and qualitative improvements in players’ understanding of cyber learning strategies for the biological sciences. Emotional engagement in the game varied along several areas, including exploration of the game environment, communication with teammates, and in the use of in-game tools. Our research suggests that attention to diverse gameplay mechanics within the same collaborative environment can foster emotional engagement in a broader array of youth. Additionally, attention to diverse mechanics and game roles offers future game designers an opportunity to mimic many of the interdisciplinary and collaborative aspects of real scientific workflows.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Advanced CyberInfrastructure (ACI)
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Almadena Chtchelkanova
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University of Washington
United States
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