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It’s early afternoon on a Sunday at Boston’s Museum of Science. Brittle winter light floods the lower lobby of the Green Wing, where about a dozen young students are huddled in teams, peering at Pocket PCs, their parents listening nearby. There’s a palpable sense of urgency among the team members; everyone’s shouting at once. Eleven-year-old Katie Long, a self-assured fifth grader from Wellesley, MA, steps in and takes charge of her group-two girls, one boy, a father, and two mothers-by fiat. She’s figured out what to do with the technology and begins organizing her troop into attack formation.

The boisterous students are playing Hi-Tech Who Done It!, a crime-solving game created for the museum by MIT faculty and students. It incorporates handheld computers connected to the museum’s wireless network, which the students are using to catch a thief. First, they use the Wi-Fi network to locate information stations that contain clues, and then they download the clues to their handhelds. Each team member has an assigned role, such as biologist, detective, or technologist; some of the clues are available only to certain characters. But all of the teammates can beam data they gather into each other’s computers through the wireless network. The idea is to collect clues and objects, conduct interviews, and glean relevant facts from museum exhibits, sharing the accumulated information and using it to solve the case of a mysterious theft from the museum’s collection.

As it works its way through 11 exhibit rooms, the team becomes more comfortable with the technology and quickly establishes a modus operandi: gather information fast and worry about its meaning later. The students on Katie’s team are exuberant, running from room to room, so enthused that their parents and a videographer taping the event can barely keep up. In the end, Katie’s team solves the crime, arresting a security guard who has stolen the museum’s mummy. But more, the students have learned how to work as a team.

Hi-Tech Who Done It! is part of a research project called the Education Arcade that aims to make computer and video games a valuable component of teaching. The undertaking is a collaboration between MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will ultimately bring together a consortium of educators, game designers, publishers, and policymakers to develop sophisticated games that range from quick demonstrations that illustrate points made in lectures to semester-long projects that support the content of courses. The educational games will be aimed at motivating high-school students or helping advanced-high-school or first-year college students learn complex concepts. Teachers will also benefit, as the Education Arcade is developing a website that will serve as a clearinghouse for lesson plans coordinated with existing commercial games, projects and programs to help students learn to create games, and online forums where teachers can share best practices with their peers.

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