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Whyville

A Haven for Future Scientists

October 2002

by Natalie Gutierrez

This is the tale of the Whyvillians down in Whyville
who travel the earth in their Warp Mobile,
assist a few lost space aliens along their journey,
and return home to put an end to an outbreak of Whypox
in a hurry.


It sounds like an excerpt from a Dr. Seuss book. Instead, these are activities performed by real children from around the world on the pages of the colorful Whyville Web site. Launched in 1999 by its creator, James Bower, Ph.D., professor of radiology at the Health Science Center, the purpose of Whyville.net is to get children, especially young girls, more interested in the sciences. The site provides exciting, interactive and educationally relevant content and activities.

"Most Web sites are very static," Dr. Bower said. "Users scroll through pages of text with little opportunity to interact with others. It’s an isolating and frankly boring experience." Dr. Bower is an advocate for getting schools to replace textbook-based lessons with hands-on educational activities. A pioneer in the field of computational biology (the use of computing and mathematics to study and understand biological processes) and an expert in educational technology, Dr. Bower worked with a team of educators, scientists, artists and Internet gurus for more than 15 years to create Whyville. The result is a fascinating world of Dr. Seussian proportion, but with a modern-day, techno-savvy intrigue.

When users log on, they get to create their own identities on the "Pick Your Nose" page. With a simple click and drag of the mouse they also get to pick the color and type of hair, eyes, lips and clothing they wear in Whyville. Then they can take a tour of the town on the Whyville tour bus.



(L-R) Joey Raymond and his brother, Justin, explore Whyville.net. The Web site gives children the opportunity to play fun games and learn at the same time. Children use critical thinking skills as well as basic computer skills to maneuver their way through the site. Rewards are given for answering questions correctly. Web site administrators incorporate ideas for games and activities from the children users themselves.


  Joey and Justin
Joey and Justin Raymond
A gray paved road winds through the caricatural town square where bright yellow, red and blue buildings and houses, some with crooked staircases, doorways and rooftops, sit atop rolling green hills with funky looking trees.

An abundance of science-related activities await the curious-minded Whyvillian on any given day. Children have the opportunity to learn about medicine, physics, chemistry, geography and history through hands-on activities. For example, children learn the basics of angular momentum by making an animated skater spin as fast as possible. By completing the "Solstice Safari," children learn about the different seasons and why they change. In the Whyville Dance Studio, children can choreograph their very own dance routines. Dr. Bower said that although it isn’t obvious to the "dancers," they are actually accomplishing a lesson in vectors and Cartesian coordinates (a mathematical system of measuring distance based on a set of axes) to achieve their dance steps.

One of the most important differences between Whyville and other children’s Web sites, Dr. Bower said, is that the users can discuss what they’ve learned live with their fellow Whyvillians. Or, they have the option to communicate through messages or articles they write themselves and post on the town’s newspaper, The Whyville Times. They can help one another complete activities by giving advice or by working with one another in groups.

Whyville is so intriguing that the site boasts nearly 300,000 registered users, more than half of which are females between the ages of 11 and 13. Dr. Bower said this is good news since research shows that many girls this age tend to lose interest in math, science and computers because of a low self-confidence in their analytical and technological abilities, which unfortunately in many cases is not countered by their parents or teachers.

"Young girls need to have the right tools, but also active encouragement from parents, teachers and role models to pursue their interests in math and science," said Linda Pruski, educational development specialist at the Health Science Center. "All children are natural-born scientists who love to ask questions, play with dirt and look at the stars. The spark for learning math and science is there. Educators must learn how to keep that spark burning so that it follows them through adulthood," she said.

The National Science Foundation’s Report, "Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Education 2000," indicated that women are less likely than men to choose careers in science and engineering. The numbers and percentages of women earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science also decreased in the last decade.

"Whyville.net works to counter that trend through science education for children that is interactive and technologically sophisticated, yet still connected to the real world of teachers, students and classrooms. Users become part of a community of learners who are constantly challenged by new scientific subjects and related, interesting activities," Dr. Bower said.

Local children are benefiting, right alongside children across the nation and the world, from what Whyville.net has to offer.

Shelsea Ramirez, an eighth-grader in the Harlandale Independent School District, says her favorite Whyville activity is the skater game.

"The skater game is challenging because you have to think about how you’re going to make the skater spin faster and faster," Ramirez said, sitting at the computer, fidgeting with the curls in her hair. "It’s kind of funny when she falls down, but it's also fun when you get it right because you get to be an Olympic Champion for a while."

Shelsea’s mom, Rita, says more learning tools like Whyville.net are needed in classrooms, especially in school districts such as Shelsea’s where funding is limited.

"Shelsea’s dream is to be a science teacher, and the more learning experiences she has to encourage that dream, the better," Rita Ramirez said.

Although he has a collection of more than 20 Nintendo games, Joey Raymond, a sixth-grader in the Northside Independent School District, says Whyville.net is more interesting than any of the Nintendo games he’s played.

"Whyville is cool and it helps you learn because you have to read the instructions and follow them or you won’t be able to do the games right. You’ll crash like in the hot air balloon game," Raymond said.

"It helps you learn how to read better, too, because you have to sound out the words as you read," chimes in Raymond’s 7-year-old brother, Justin. "Finding the aliens makes you think about the spaceship they’re on and maybe what kind of gadgets it’s made of and how it works. I like thinking about all that stuff."

Although the fun activities such as the chat rooms have proven to be some of the most popular activities on Whyville, a survey of children users performed by researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., showed that children were learning about science and technology while having fun.

"The site managers infuse Whyville with science. Occasionally they’ll create weather disturbances or disease outbreaks like the Whypox incident a few months ago," said Dr. Brian Foley, a science education researcher at Caltech and the lead author of the survey. Dr. Foley said the Whypox epidemic created a stir among Whyvillians because the mysterious red spots that appeared on Whyvillian’s faces created a scientific problem that was relevant to their lives. The events encouraged children to learn more about epidemiology and the spread of disease.

Dr. Bower said children write most of the instructions for the various science activities on the site. "The children are able to post their suggestions and concerns on the Web site," Dr. Bower said. "We take those into consideration when updating the site. The children practically run the site themselves."

The increasing popularity of the site and some of the suggestions he’s received from users have prompted Dr. Bower to work on expanding the site to include versions in Spanish and Chinese. Some exciting activities Whyvillians can look forward to in the near future include the building of a space station by the Whyville Aeronautics and Space Administration (WASA), which will launch a trip to Mars, a turtle conservation project, and numerous exercises in nutrition.

Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 registered users are schoolteachers, but Dr. Bower hopes more teachers will begin using Whyville.net as part of their classroom lessons.

"While a growing number of children and teachers, especially in Texas, have classroom access to the Internet, there are still relatively few Internet sites specifically designed to support constructive science learning. Whyville.net motivates and engages students in a safe Internet learning environment," Dr. Bower said.

And with a tool like Whyville.net, combined with the imagination and curiosity of children from all walks of life, there’s no telling when a few young San Antonians turned Whyvillians will become the next astronauts to travel to the moon.

Take a virtual tour of Whyville.net and find out how to become a registered user. For more information, send an e-mail to
city-management@whyville.net.

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Updated 12/11/14