Murder under the Microscope: Science education through an online computer game

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What is Murder under the Microscope?

How do you teach Internet-savvy primary and secondary school students about environmental science while developing their collaborative and problem-solving skills? In New South Wales, Australia, it’s done through a unique online computer game called Murder under the Microscope, or MuM. This educational program is wildly popular in Australian schools and has attracted international attention from the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications (EDMEDIA) in Vienna, Austria.

Murder under the Microscope is a fictional “murder” mystery whose victim is a type of plant or animal found in the local ecology. In each case, there is a villain (a species or phenomenon) and a crime scene, as well as an overarching theme or issue. Past victims include seagrass, Murray cod, and black bitterns. Villains have ranged from the mundane (impervious surfaces) to the exotic (a chemical spill), and the theme tying each case together is an issue such as run-off or stormwater.

Though the crime investigated by students through the course of each game is fictitious, all the scenarios are based on real events. Unlike a police investigation, which ends when the mystery is solved and the villain is prosecuted, the final objective in Murder under the Microscope is to mitigate the crime: students not only identify the victim, villain, and crimesite, they also develop a “catchment management plan” to address the problem.

Classes compete as teams against classes from their own and other schools. Thus students learn to collaborate as a team, but also benefit from the motivation of a bona fide competition.

The first Murder under the Microscope game was conducted in 1995. Though it has not been held by “Catchment Headquarters” every year since then, it returned in 2007, and the 2008 game recently concluded. The investigation period of each game lasts about three weeks, and teams have an additional month to develop and submit their catchment management plans.

Murder under the Microscope as an Educational Tool

EDMEDIA was held shortly before the 2008 catchment management plan winners were announced. Catherine Nielsen presented a paper there which explained what made Murder under the Microscope so successful. While there have been educational computer games for almost as long as microcomputers have been widely available, these games are often inflexible and can only be used in narrowly defined situations. They often cannot be adapted for use by a wide variety of students and learning styles. Murder under the Microscope, on the other hand, is presented not as a rigid computer game in the traditional style, but as a sort of role-playing game, with much of the work done by students offline.

In fact, Murder under the Microscope is such a flexible program that it is used for both primary and secondary school students, being recommended for grades 5-10. It helps students learn about individual species, concepts in environmental science, and the impact of ecological concerns both by and on people. Throughout the game, teams develop research and investigation skills as well as problem-solving skills (what educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom called “application” and “synthesis”).

This fun, hands-on tool for teaching about ecology and environmental science can serve as a model. Other programs can look at Murder under the Microscope as an example of how to create an online computer game that engages students and teaches them thinking skills that can be applied to the outside world.