NASA, BYU Develop Alternate Reality Game for STEM Education


A new online multi-user game called DUST has been released by NASA. It was created to encourage the teens, and especially girls and minorities, to immerse themselves in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

DUST asks players to interact with a fictional world by using skills and media from the real world. The video trailer on the DUST website shows that a meteor shower has spread “mysterious clouds of dust into the Earth’s atmosphere,” which makes the adults fall unconscious. It is up to players to save their parents’ lives by the end of seven weeks of play.

The game is a joint production developed by students of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and the University of Maryland at College Park along with engineers from NASA Langley in Virginia and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Tinder Transmedia, also in Provo, provided the storyline and production services. The project was funded by multiple grants from the National Science Foundation.

During the game, players receives new parts of the story and science clues two to three times a week through social media, email and game applications. They work as a community to add their own input, guide the action, do research and provide solutions that will help the players to rescue the adult characters.

Bill Cirillo, an aerospace engineer of the NASA Langley Research Center who started working with the game developers about two years ago, explained the flexibility of DUST:

“In DUST there are no fixed outcomes. It’s up to the students to move the story along and do problem solving using scientific method and critical thinking skills.”

Derek Hansen, a professor at Brigham Young University and the lead of the Game Team, is optimistic that DUST will generate interest in related fields of study:

“Researchers on the project are studying how alternate reality games can serve as novel learning platforms that promote STEM learning and encourage teenagers to pursue STEM careers.”

Alternate reality games are interactive networked stories that use the real world as a backdrop. Players need to sign onto a website to communicate directly with characters in the game through various platforms such as social networking sites Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. They can also communicate through email, mobile phones, at museums and also through printed materials to interact with each other and solve the mysteries or puzzles.

Students from a broad range of majors — physics, information technology, biology, film, advertising, graphic design and illustration — contributed to the game’s design, art and programming. Teenage co-designers and beta testers from Sousa and Stuart-Hobson School in Washington, DC and from Dixon Middle School in Provo also tested some of the mobile applications of DUST and its player community website.

Over time, the project will release additional materials and lesson plans.