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Middle-schoolers to give Madison neighborhoods a virtual overhaul

June 14, 2007

Some Madison middle school students will have a pretty impressive subject for their "What I did on my summer vacation" essays – developing their own plan for making over the capital city’s most famous street and some of its key neighborhoods.

A group of 16 students are taking on the role of urban planners in a four-week computer game designed by researchers in the University of Wisconsin–Madison department of educational sciences. The game begins June 18 and concludes with students presenting their new vision for State Street, the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood, and the Northside to Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.

The students will be assigned business cards and name badges as they become employees of a virtual design firm through a computer game that includes e-mail interaction with virtual characters who guide them through the project. The young planners, armed with digital cameras and notebooks to document what they want to preserve or change about the urban landscape, will hit the Madison streets for site visits to help them determine how to reshape the three areas of the city.

Once the students research the history and challenges facing the neighborhoods, they’ll form teams to weigh the needs of stakeholders who want more green space, jobs, housing or parking and use a mapping tool that shows the effects those zoning preferences have on the economy, crime and trash output. When they’re done making those hard decisions, the students will use a 3-D mapping tool to see how their work would shape what State Street, Schenk-Atwood and the Northside look like.

Researchers are using the game to learn more about the power technology has to engage children in learning and solving complex problems in their own communities and what education might look like in the future. The game incorporates English, math, social studies and science, moving beyond basic skills and cutting across the boundaries that usually exist between those subjects in schools.

The Urban Science students meet Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to noon, beginning June 18 in the fourth floor computer lab at Wendt Library, 215 N. Randall Ave., Room 405. Students will meet first at the lab before going on site visits, which are scheduled for:

  • Tuesday, June 19 – State Street
  • Tuesday, June 26 – Schenk/Atwood
  • Tuesday, July 3 – Northside

Students will present their plans to the mayor on Thursday, July 12, from 9:30-10:15 a.m. in room 259 of the Educational Sciences Building, 1025 W. Johnson St.

David Williamson Shaffer, education science professor, is overseeing
the research project that includes the Urban Science game and is author
of the 2007 book "How Computer Games Help Children Learn."
Elizabeth Sowatzke, a graduate student in educational psychology and the Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development program, is leading the Urban Science game and can explain research efforts connected to the project as well as coordinate with media interested in visiting the classroom or going on site visits.