When Min Liu teamed up with the McDonald Observatory 10 years ago to create a technology-rich learning environment that's academic-speak for a cool educational video game for sixth grade science classes, she was pretty sure students would enjoy using it and learn complex science concepts in the process.
What 10- or 11-year old wouldn't have fun traveling through outer space and rescuing aliens?
What she didn't anticipate was that it would entice so many top-notch graduate students who'd jump at the chance to use the game as a learning tool and research platform.
Alien Rescue is an online problem-based 3D immersive learning environment for sixth grade science. It combines best practices from educational research with innovative technologies to deliver an engaging learning experience.
The design of Alien Rescue is based on current research in teaching and learning and is continually developed and improved by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin.
Alien Rescue was developed to meet the curriculum requirements for sixth grade science.
"The game serves as a training platform for students, whether they're wanting to develop design, technical or research talents," says Liu, a professor in College of Education and head of the Learning Technologies Program. "Oddly, most of the students don't already have substantial technology knowledge they develop that while they're here."
"Alien Rescue," created by Liu and her students in the Learning Technologies Program, is a multimedia-enhanced problem-based learning (PBL) environment. The learning goal of the game is to engage students in solving a complex problem that requires them to use the tools, procedures and knowledge of space science, and the processes of scientific inquiry.
"Alien Rescue is somewhat unique in that it's a student effort," said Liu, "and those students are from a variety of backgrounds. Some bring the design skills we need, and then we have those who have strong science backgrounds, and they're assets when it comes to keeping the content authentic and correct."
Playing the role of space scientist, students must finding suitable homes in the solar system for six different alien species that have lost their home planets and are broadcasting a plea for help to Earth. Each species has very different habitat requirements.
The game combines the fantasy element of aliens with the realism of being a young scientist, which research has shown to be a great match for middle school students. Through a discovery approach, students learn from their mistakes as they play the game, self-correct their errors and are supported by various tools that are built into the program.
Since the game feels like "fun," it may seed positive attitudes about science that remain through high school and college. Research also shows that sixth grade is a pivotal time when students decide if they love or hate science.
"Alien Rescue is a good example of inquiry-based learning, which is a highly effective way of teaching critical thinking skills and developing problem-solving abilities," Liu says. "The program has been successful as a teaching and learning tool for all groups, from gifted and talented to at-risk students. And, according to the teachers, it's an excellent motivation booster."
Alien Rescue has become so popular that it's now part of the science curriculum in 21 states as well as Australia, China and Canada. In the past year alone Liu has gotten requests from 20 more schools in 11 states and Canada to implement the program. In the Austin area it's part of the school science curriculum in Round Rock, Leander and Killeen.
Although Alien Rescue is intended for sixth-graders (it's aligned with the sixth grade TEKS), teachers in fifth through ninth grade classrooms have used it and proven that, with modifications, it's an excellent learning tool for a broader audience.
"There's a dramatic difference between the current iteration of the program and the original version," said Liu.
"It's a much, much more sophisticated product now and that's due to the multi-talented graduate students who have worked on it over the past decade. They've been extremely responsive to feedback from teachers and students."
Once in the learning technology program, members decide on a focus based on their interests and the project's needs, with most choosing research, design and/or technology.
"The value of getting to learn by doing and collaborate with a group of such talented people is amazing," says Jaejin Lee, a doctoral student who is interested in 3D modeling and game-based learning. "We meet weekly, bounce ideas off one another and collaborate to tackle all of the big problems. We take all of this very seriously for us, failure is not an option."
Of the team that's been working on Alien Rescue over the past year, three are getting master's degrees and six are doctoral students. As part of the project the graduate students have had an opportunity to present papers about Alien Rescue at major learning technologies and education research conferences. Last fall the game won the Interactive Learning Award from the national Association for Educational Communications and Technology.
"Teaching and education have experienced enormous changes in the past two or three years," Liu says. "That rapid transformation is going to keep happening. I like that we're doing something that addresses future needs as well as current ones. We're always aware of the huge responsibility we have to the students and educators our work has to be excellent."
"Alien Rescue really is an incredible research platform. It draws people from all sorts of backgrounds and teaches them about technology and design and, most of all, about tapping into your own creativity. Every single one of us is here because we love working with teachers and students and want to create the best learning tool possible."
Lucas Horton, doctoral student
"I have a bachelor's degree in English, taught overseas and then came into the program knowing very little about technology. I've been wanting to learn 3D game design and, before discovering this program, I had no idea that UT offered such an opportunity. I feel so lucky to have been part of it!"
Matt O'Hair, who graduated with a master's degree in May
"I have a master's degree in astronomy, have worked as a content developer and researcher for space science in the past and I feel like contributing to Alien Rescue was sort of my destiny. I focus on the content and make sure it's valid and correct. I'm interested in game-based learning environments and how we can better deliver science content to students this way this absolutely is where the future of science education lies."
Jina Kang, doctoral student
A version of this story originally appeared on the College of Education's website.