Dragons have landed in Whyville, a virtual world where millions of kids aged 8-15 are engaged in learning about science, investigating virtual careers and creating their own content. Now, Whyvillians can explore the world of genetics by breeding dragons with the traits needed to find treasures throughout Whyville.

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Can the intersection of school and social media transform STEM learning? With funding from the National Science Foundation, our Geniverse genetics software and the Whyville virtual world are teaming up to explore this question.

Children in Whyville (with more than 7 million registered users, mostly aged 8-15) will create dragon pets and learn the genotype-to-phenotype "rules" of dragon breeding. We'll research the effect of combining formal and informal learning technologies.

GeniVille is a collaborative effort between the Concord Consortium, Numedeon, Inc. (creators of Whyville) and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

The rise of virtual worlds and online networks is perhaps the most spectacular—and to many of us the most unexpected—phenomenon of the 21st century. An astonishing 73% of teens and young adults in the United States are a member of at least one virtual community. This raises a number of urgent questions.

  • What effect will virtual communities likely have on schools?
  • Can students learn important concepts and skills simply by interacting in virtual communities?
  • How can we assess what they have learned?
  • What impact is this new kind of learning environment likely to have?
  • What are the barriers to this novel learning modality, and how can they be minimized?

GeniVille's research goals are directed at obtaining tentative answers to these questions—answers that we hope will point the way to future research aimed at broadening the scope and strengthening the conclusions that we are able to reach here.

Principal Investigators

Paul Horwitz
Jen Sun

Project Inquiries

Project Partners

Numedeon, Inc.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. NSF DRL-1238625. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

We will study the integration of educational materials into virtual communities aimed at children. Children on Whyville are already offered educational games, developed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Getty Museum, among others. Our goal is to engage children in fun and challenging dragon breeding activities, similar to those in the Geniverse curriculum, but aimed specifically at this younger audience and designed to be self-paced. Children will learn the fundamentals of inheritance as they breed dragons as virtual pets.

This research hopes to inform future development of educational software integration into online media applications.

We will conduct research in three phases.

  • Research Phase 1 will involve pilot testing GeniVille activities with a small group of students at our offices in Concord, MA. A small group of select Whyville users (the Club Why group) will also test the games virtually and provide feedback.
  • Research Phase 2 will begin in the summer of 2013 when GeniVille goes live in the Whyville environment. We’ll collect usage data virtually from those Whyville users who choose to try the GeniVille activities. We’ll also provide expert "Q&A" forums where Whyville users can interact with project staff and ask questions about the games and their genetics content.
  • Research Phase 3 will involve work in middle schools in Boston and Philadelphia where teachers will use GeniVille with their students as part of their genetics curriculum. We'll continue to collect usage data from log files and we’ll observe students as they use the GeniVille activities in the classroom.

The Geniverse activities were designed for high school students, but Whyville activities are mostly used by middle school tweens. GeniVille activities will be modified in language and content to be appropriate for the Whyville population.

The topics all appear in the typical middle school life science curriculum, though the upper level games in each category (marked below with asterisks) will also include material that is not usually covered at this level.

Building on the Geniverse learning activities, we plan to implement a sequence of short games for GeniVille that will cover three major topics in genetics (topics that all appear in the typical middle school life science curriculum).

Topic 1: Genotype-to-phenotype mapping

  1. Mendelian (dominant and recessive) traits
  2. Incomplete dominance (traits for which heterozygous individuals differ from homozygous dominant and homozygous recessive ones)
  3. Sex linkage (the situation that occurs when the controlling gene is located on a sex chromosome)
  4. Polygenic traits* (those that are determined by more than one gene)

Topic 2: Meiosis and fertilization

  1. Chromosome segregation (the process by which homologous chromosomes are randomly selected during cell division)
  2. Gamete selection (whereby gametes – sperm and egg – are randomly selected for fertilization)
  3. Crossing over* (a recombination process in which DNA is transferred between homologous chromosomes during meiosis)

Topic 3: Inheritance patterns

  1. Distribution of offspring traits (enumeration of the different ways the parental alleles can combine, and their effects on the traits of the offspring)
  2. Law of large numbers (how the frequencies of traits become predictable when applied to large numbers of offspring)
  3. Use of breeding experiments* (how the mode of inheritance of traits can be inferred by an examination of pedigrees)

Dragon BookWant to use Dragons in Whyville?

Do you teach genetics in middle school (grades 5-8)? Your students can explore inheritance and variation of traits by breeding dragons in the popular website, Whyville! The content is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for heredity. Take a virtual field trip with your students. Admission is free!

Getting Started

Whyville is free and easy to join. To use the Dragons activities, you must first register for a Whyville account as a teacher. Then your students will register with a special Whyville URL that you will receive after your teacher registration is verified.

Download All

  1. Registration: Teacher registration and class set-up instructions
  2. Dragon Quests: List of activities and genetics topics covered
  3. Teacher Guide: An example lesson plan and discussion questions
  4. Dragon Anatomy: Printable student worksheet

Using Dragons in Your Classroom

The genetics activities are divided into Dragon Quests.

Each quest presents a challenge to breed dragons that will produce offspring with specific traits (like nose spikes or wings) that help retrieve treasures hidden in different locations around Whyville. Each quest also contains game-like labs that introduce students to the underlying genetics concepts needed to solve the challenge.

Dragon Quests increase in difficulty, slowly introducing new traits and more complex patterns of inheritance. Progress through the Dragon Quests is saved in the Dragon Book where students collect their treasures. Bonus rounds give students extra prizes for breeding only within specific lairs.

To get started with Dragons in your classroom, read this lesson plan and print this helpful dragon anatomy worksheet for your students.

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