Our Students in Action

Heather Butler:
Teaching Reliable Scientific Methods with Video Games

Space Aliens to Teach Students Scientific Principles

Wanted: students to join the Federal Bureau of Science and combat an alien invasion! Space creatures called Fuaths are trying to take over the Earth by turning humans into mindless consumers, using bad science as their primary weapon. Recruits will need to read the alien’s guidebook, the Fuath's Guide to the Bean's World of Science, to be able to spot alien spies. Aliens may be spotted by the faultiness of their scientific principles.

This whimsical setting is the premise for an educational game called Operation ARIES! (an acronym for Acquiring Research and Investigative Evaluation Skills). The project is funded by a grant from the Department of Education, Institute for Educational Sciences to Dr. Keith Millis (University of Northern Illinois), Dr. Art Graesser (University of Memphis), and our own Dr. Diane Halpern (former President of APA, Trustee Professor of Psychology, and Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College). Together with a team of researchers that includes doctoral student Heather Butler, they have designed Operation ARIES! to teach scientific principles using an adaptive tutoring system.

Heather Butler was initially hired to collect images for the training guide and to assess the effectiveness of the program, but soon her involvement changed and she began illustrating the "Fuath's Guide" herself. "Illustrating the e-book has been one of my favorite parts of this project. I have a background in the graphic arts, so this project really allowed me to use a part of my more creative background to promote critical thinking,” Heather reports. Designed to take one semester to complete, the Operation ARIES! software is aimed at educating advanced high-school and college undergraduate students who are taking introductory science, critical thinking, or research methods courses. As students engage in the science fiction battle to save Earth, they are also undergoing a three-stage process to train themselves in the principles of science. First, they complete a training course using the Fuath's Guide to the Bean's World of Science. Penned (in the game) by a whimsical alien, the e-book describes what reliable science is and how it can be undermined. An adaptive automated tutor adjusts the level of tutelage based on the student’s understanding. Next, the players compete against other players by identifying the flaws in research examples. Lastly, students interrogate potential aliens and evaluate their credibility, using the skills and principles they have just learned.

In addition to her role as doctoral student and student researcher, Heather also teaches at three local colleges – San Bernardino Valley College, Crafton Hills College, and California State University, Fullerton. She has been able to test Operation ARIES! on her students at Crafton Hills and although only midway into the project, Heather reports preliminary results on the effectiveness of automated tutoring are positive. "Not only did the students report that the program was highly engaging, but based on the data we collected they learned quite a bit too."