“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain

Part social networking site, part edutisement, Whyville is somewhat of an anomaly in the growing field of kid-oriented online communities. Proclaimed the nation’s 10th largest city in 2004, Whyville blends entertainment, advertising and fun, drawing so-called “tweeners” by the millions. And although its growing list of sponsors includes commercial entities like Toyota’s Scion division and Sun Microsystems, its largest contributors are educational groups like NASA, The University of Texas and the Getty Museum.

“It’s almost like PBS meets Neopets if you will,” says Jay Goss, Chief Operating Officer of Whyville. “If you go to the museum of Whyville, you’re not learning superficially about art. It’s actually an entire virtual museum that we put together with the Getty Museum, the real Getty Museum.”

What sets Whyville apart is not what it teaches kids about the world around them, but how it teaches them. Whyville takes a hands-on approach, introducing kids to the science they take for granted.

“If you decide that you want to eat lunch at the Whyville cafeteria,” explains Goss, “we actually keep track of your calories, nutrients and macronutrients, run it through an algorithm together with a nutritionist dietician advisory committee from the University of Texas and we give you disease if your diet is unhealthy. So a good example in Whyville is if you don’t get enough vitamin C for a few days in a row, we actually give you scurvy.”

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Secondary school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose. In effect, we have a cafeteria style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses. – A Nation at Risk

“The company was founded by a bunch of scientists at Cal Tech,” says Goss. “What motivated these scientists was not any kind of commercial notoriety or even simply being a good educational site, but what motivated them was really the science crisis in this country.

“It turns out when you look at our kindergartners up through fifth grade and you look at the data and you compare our kids to the rest of the industrialized world, and our kids are doing just fine, and then … our kids just fall off the chart. And if you look at that data a little more closely, where we’re falling off most violently … is in math and science.”

Whyville isn’t the only organization concerned about the growing apathy among America’s schoolchildren for science and mathematics, nor is it the first time the science crisis has reared its ugly head in America’s schools.

In 1981, then Secretary of Education T. H. Bell created the National Commission on Excellence to determine the state of America’s educational system. Their conclusions, published in the groundbreaking 1983 report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform,” were terrifying.

The commission discovered that standardized test scores had been steadily declining for almost 20 years, over 10 percent of children entering adulthood were functionally illiterate and the science achievement test scores of graduating high school seniors had been plummeting steadily since the 1970s.

“Our Nation is at risk,” the Commission concluded. “The United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

The report propelled the nation into action. A new wave of science and space initiatives were launched by the department of education and NASA sent teachers into space. The result? Test scores improved, dropout rates declined and more students left the public education system with the ability to read, write and ‘rithmetic.

Twenty years later, the founders of Whyville believe we’re in need of another renaissance. Founded in 1999, Whyville now boasts nearly 2 million users – most between the ages of 8 and 15, the so-called “tweeners.” One of their primary sponsors is NASA.

“Once you get a kid sort of self declaring that they’re not good at or not interested in math or science,” says Goss, “the likelihood that they ever circle back later on in their educational careers is next to nothing. Whereas if you and I decide we don’t like American History as 12th graders, we might very well get into American History come college or in a graduate program. But once you kind of turn yourself off of math and science, you never go back.

“When you put a man on the moon, that kind of carries the day for a couple decades, but nowadays putting a man on the moon’s just not going to do it. … One of the things that will do it is if we start teaching science in a more hands on manner and inquiry based fashion.

“That’s exactly why NASA is in Whyville. NASA is the sponsor of the Whyville Aeronautics and Space Administration, and in that particular place in Whyville, you get to learn about rocket science and spectroscopy and ion engine technology, and they’re literally playing what you and I would call almost videogame vignettes. [Kids are] sitting down to play Tetris, only in order to succeed in Tetris you have to learn something about spectroscopy.”

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“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As Mary Poppins would testify, kids will do almost anything if you can convince them it’s a game. And the capacity to make an interesting and fun game for kids is almost unlimited in the virtual world. This can be good and bad. I wondered how selective Whyville was in choosing advertising and educational partners, and how the community dealt with troublemakers and “bad seeds.”

“We had to draw a line in the sand and decide who we would not let in,” Goss says. “Let’s take Coca Cola. So the cat’s out of the bag, it turns out that Coke’s really not a good product for you to drink. … But if you want to bring Coke into Whyville, there are still a lot of things we could do. We could open up a Coca Cola bottling plant, and [then] we could teach kids about something that Coca Cola could take credit for, that might be more acceptable to us than just having a Coca Cola vending machines sprinkled through Whyville. It’s not so much who and what we would let into Whyville but how we let them into Whyville.”

This philosophy extends to Whyville’s residents. The site is, after all, a virtual community, and anyone who’s watched network TV news can attest that online predators are after our kids. Many parents reject the site out of hand, fearing its connection to the internet (and therefore internet users) makes it impossible to restrict who and what their children will encounter there. According to Goss and others, there’s no need to worry.

Last year Whyville’s safety features won it a “Best Product” award from iParenting and Linda Knapp, writing for McClatchy-Tribune News Service, called Whyville “safer than most” online communities for kids. Chief among Whyville’s safety measures is its encouragement that parents take an active role in their children’s online lives, knowing where they go and why. To encourage this, Whyville makes it difficult for children to sign up for accounts without a parent’s knowledge and employs the usual array of technological and human measures. Among them: a simple test.

“So for example, a kid … can register today and play all the games today, but if they want to chat with their friends they have to [take] a chat test,” says Goss.

The pre-chat test, designed to be taken by children with adult supervision, poses various situational scenarios and suggests how children are expected to respond; who to talk to, for example, and what subjects are not appropriate.

“Whyville is pretty much the most boring site in the world if you do not take this test,” says one online review. One supposes, from a child safety standpoint, this is a good thing.

“It’s just one layer of our sort of defense mechanism that [keeps] kids from coming in that want to be a loud mouth and cause trouble,” says Goss. “We [also] have artificial intelligence that prevents the kids from talking about things we don’t want them talking about. We have live monitoring, so you wander around Whyville and see kids with a piece of duct tape over their mouth, and that’s because we’ve found them guilty of some crime in Whyville, and one of the punishments in Whyville is to lose your chat privileges … for ‘X’ number of days. There’s nothing more frustrating than logging in to Whyville and not being able to talk to your friends.”

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“I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” – Whitney Houston

“On a bad day, we get a thousand new kids, and on a good day, we get three or four thousand brand new kids,” says Goss. “We’ve basically gotten to the 2 million kids we have now by word of mouth. … Every day, tens of thousands of visits are paid to Whyville. Every month, tens of thousands of new kids register for Whyville. Every way we tried to score this thing, it works.”

Yet in spite of all it has going for it, Whyville still faces an uphill acceptance battle, mainly because it’s not the most attractive site of its kind out there, and some kids are put off by its circa 1998 graphical interface. Goss considers this a strength, not a weakness.

“The more sophisticated the home computing environment gets,” he says, “the equally true statement is the more heterogeneous that home computing environment gets. … I have kids that can operate Whyville on a machine that’s eight years old running on a 56k modem with nothing special going on, and they’re having almost the exact same experience as you and I would if we went and bought a state of the art machine from Circuit City right now. So from an access standpoint it’s been a huge competitive advantage.

“But I’ll be the first to admit that 10 years from now, once the most the outdated machine in America is 10 years newer than it is today, we might change our tune a little bit, but we think it’s definitely been the right strategy for the last eight years, and it’s probably the right strategy for the next five.”

Graphics aside, what Whyville brings to the kiddie table is an environment in which kids can explore all that science has to offer, and have fun while doing it. And NASA isn’t the only institution that’s taken notice.

“We just got a giant contract from a state organization … that wants to promote a particular career path,” says Goss. “This is an organization that wants kids to get excited about biotechnology so that in high school they’re thinking about biotechnology, so when they get in college they pursue careers and they pursue majors in biotechnology, so they go on to become employees of that state’s biotechnology firms.

“So we’re going to unleash viruses on Whyville, and these kids are going to have to respond by going into their biology lab and creating anti-viruses.”

Necessity, it would seem, is still the mother of invention. Even for children.

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.

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