Obama Administration Turns to Virtual Worlds to Expand STEM Education Initiative

3492645939_d9b4cd136b The Obama Administration made promoting engineering and science education a major part of their social agenda.

Now the White House is turning to the virtual world to extoll the virtues of a science education to skeptical students.

Pixels and Policy looks at how the White House is calling in the big guns to get their pro-technology education message out to the masses.

Virtually Promoting STEM Education

As early as a month into his term, President Obama announced initiatives to encourage American students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), all areas where American student enrollment falls short of international levels. The Washington Post reported on the widening science/math achievement gap between low-scoring Americans and the rest of the world.

Seems like a job for a public-private partnership!

Now it appears the White House is moving into the Metaverse in an attempt to expand their flagging science education initiative. In a press release issued by Duke University, the Duke Center announced a partnership with the White House to promote the development of virtual learning worlds related to science and engineering. Virtual worlds received special attention:

21st Century Learning
Lab Designers will receive awards for learning environments and digital
media-based experiences that allow young people to grapple with social
challenges through STEM-based activities.

Digital media of any type
(social networks, games, virtual worlds, mobile devices or others) may
be used. Proposals are also encouraged for curricula or other
experiences that link or connect to any game, especially but not
limited to Sony’s LittleBigPlanet™ on PlayStation®3.

The focus on developing virtual learning spaces signals a shift in how the Obama Administration is approaching the conundrum of low science education enrollments. Instead of providing in-school programming and special grant programs to spur individual interest, the White House is going after potential engineers by linking into their gaming experience.

The White House isn't alone. Back in March, NASA announced plans to build an online game that would promote engineering education to the next generation of potential NASA employees, and South Carolina recently pioneered a virtual world designed to get kids acquainted with the emerging digital communications technology of the Metaverse. Both projects received assistance from the National Science Foundation.

Virtual Technology Education: Change We Can Believe In?

The White House intends to put up or shut up on STEM by offering competitive grants for developers who can produce noticeable interest in engineering and technology education through a virtual world. Putting a financial incentive behind the administration's policy goal might help draw talent otherwise occupied in creating private sector worlds.

Looking at the lineup of partnered organizations, it's apparent the White House won't be pursuing STEM results halfheartedly. The Duke University notice ropes in the unusual suspects:

MacArthur is pleased
to team with Sony and National Lab Day to encourage the next generation
of innovators to focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

Digital media, including games, are the learning labs of the future and
this open competition encourages people to consider creative new ways
to use digital media to create learning environments that are engaging,
immersive and participatory,

Between Duke University, Sony, the National Science Foundation, the White House and the esteemed MacArthur "genius grant" overlords, could this initiative be a victim of its own ambition? Each of these organizations has a personal motivation for pursuing the project.

Will these competing agencies, companies and organizations be able to put personal and possibly conflicting short-term goals aside to ensure overall success? The government's success as co-opting virtual worlds to serve government ends is mixed, and recent government-only forays into using virtual worlds for education fell flat.

Obama is staking political capital on the success of this plan. Can he fence in the wild Metaverse?