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Revolutionizing education: Democracy Quest VR will take students on historic journey

May 14, 2024

A new virtual reality experience is one step closer to bringing history to life in secondary-education classrooms across the U.S.

Democracy Quest, a free educational resource being developed by the Center on Representative Government at Indiana University, was recently tested by IU Columbus students. Democracy Quest aims to increase the constitutional knowledge and civic-mindedness of students in sixth grade, and even in adults.

Democracy Quest will offer five learning modules focused on pivotal moments in U.S. history. Each fully realized world will be complete with characters to interact with, learn from and assist. Led by IU’s Stephanie Serriere and Elizabeth R. Osborn, the new experience had its first trial with students at the Columbus Learning Center on April 25. Serriere’s education students, as well as IU Columbus history students, were invited to participate in the trial.

Democracy Quest trial in action Liz Osborn, director of education at the Center on Representative Government, gives strategy advice as IUPUC community members test Democracy Quest on April 25. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

“From 1700s Philadelphia through navigating the government of today, we are so excited to introduce students to major U.S. turning points in each of our virtual reality modules,” said Osborn, director of education for the IU Center on Representative Government. “The Constitution is in the history books, but what about the woman business owner who wasn’t invited to the Constitutional Convention? How do these proceedings affect her? Will she be better off with the new laws in action than she was before? Well, thanks to Democracy Quest, we can ask her.”

According to a recent study, for every $50 the U.S. government spends on STEM education, only 5 cents is spent on civic education. Osborn and Serriere hope Democracy Quest is a vital tool to mitigate this disparity. Civics education includes not only how governments are created but also how they are run today.

“Supporting civics education is paramount to handing down this ideal of democracy to the next generation,” said Serriere, professor of social studies education. “We hope we’ve found an innovative way to do that.”

Established in 1999, the Center on Representative Government was developed by former congressman Lee Hamilton as a nonpartisan, educational institution to create programs that inform, inspire and motivate students and to encourage civic participation to help prepare the next generation of citizens. Supported by a three-year, $5.7 million cooperative agreement award from the United States Department of Defense, Democracy Quest supports that mission.

Democracy Quest is building content about U.S. history, government, civics and law to help students develop critical-thinking skills through primary-source analysis and demonstrate that each individual has an opportunity to influence the trajectory of our country’s success. In a culminating activity, students who are taught a module will then work in a project-based learning environment to identify and develop alternative solutions to problems that can then be applied to similar situations they might face in the workplace and in their communities.

When the first module of Democracy Quest is complete, users will experience the Articles of Confederation and the Philadelphia national convention like never before. Students will be tasked with meeting five new virtual-reality characters — each a conglomeration of related experiences to present the perspectives of those not invited to the proceedings. Each encounter will also include interactive components to gamify the experience.

While the IU students tested a more minimal version on April 26, they did get to experience its potential at work. They navigated a simple maze, threw objects into a target and pulled a series of levers to move a ball from one side of a puzzle to the other. Each session ran for about 15 minutes — the target time for the finished version — and users who made it through the testing environment’s challenges were rewarded with a detailed old Philadelphia neighborhood to walk around in. While the graphics were still simple, they saw the promise of what was to come.

Onsite participants said they were pleased with the virtual reality experience and excited about its future. Many were education majors who could see the potential of a fully realized Democracy Quest and were looking forward to the finished version.

Jazzlynn Yeadon, an IU Columbus junior majoring in education, said she really enjoyed the experience, including the mini-games used to engage players and navigate the overall game.

“This could be very beneficial in my future classroom,” Yeadon said. “Kids are already so tech savvy, I can see this engaging them much more than reading a chapter in a social studies text book.”

To bring this virtual world to life, the IU team is conducting ongoing research to ensure historical accuracy in each module. Osborn serves as the chief historian and is leading their curriculum team, which includes graduate students like School of Education doctoral student Mariah Pol. They have been researching primary and secondary historical sources from the Library of Congress and other places to capture less well-known perspectives to then adapt this information into a rare or never-been-done-before methodology. Users can experience this information as if it were firsthand knowledge and discover historic details, down to even the accurate font used in the printing press.

Democracy Quest character art Democracy Quest will include virtual-reality characters for students to interact with. Concept art by Half Full Nelson

They collaborate with Half Full Nelson, a game development company owned by IU alumnus Andrew Nelson, to engineer the virtual reality experience. Half Full Nelson has worked with the Center on Representative Government for over 10 years, creating numerous civic education materials that are used in schools nationwide. Nelson and his creative team, including game designer and artist Matt Madeira, are working closely with the IU team to ensure historical accuracy.

The team is just as interested in what comes after a user’s experience in the VR world as they are with the time spent inside. Through testing, they hope to determine whether the experience increases students’ knowledge of history and principles of democracy, while also determining their likelihood for future civic engagement. A research team led by Serriere, which includes doctoral student Kyle O’Brien and other graduate students, will also measure how the Democracy Quest materials impact teaching methods. The goal is to ultimately measure students’ recognition of diverse perspectives, empathy for diverse perspectives, and knowledge of principles of democracy and historical content.

The team is targeting Oct. 1 for the launch of the one full Democracy Quest module focused on the Philadelphia national convention. Production of the other four modules will occur during the next two years.

“It’s one thing to read about history, but it’s something else to be immersed in a more realistic experience of it: to see the sights, meet the people not necessarily involved with the decisions, but those still affected by them, especially voices not always centralized,” Serriere said. “Democracy Quest offers a new perspective on how U.S. government came to be, and students will hopefully use this understanding to enrich their own lives and the lives of others.”


University Communications and Marketing

Dan Melnick

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