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Making Waves: Episode 38 (October 28, 2009)

[audio clip from WaterLife, a new educational game from NOS]

That’s a clip from WaterLife: Where the Ocean Meets the Sea, a National Ocean Service online game that launched earlier this year.

The scene is from the beginning of the game when a young girl named Valerie meets Oscar the otter.  Together, the two characters set out to restore Oscar’s home, a polluted estuary. Kids who play WaterLife journey along with these characters to learn about the factors that produce healthy estuaries, about food webs, and they learn why estuaries are essential to ocean life and to humans.

On today’s episode, we talk with one of the key people behind the WaterLife project about how and why this game was made, and why educational games are an increasingly important tool for teaching kids in the 21st century.

It’s October 28th, 2009 and this is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

(NOS Education & Gaming)        

Today we’re going to talk about Waterlife, a game that’s fun to play, but also aims to teach young people some science and conservation concepts.

Games like Waterlife are increasingly popular, mainly because kids really like to play games. That’s probably not an earth-shattering revelation to you, but just how much time kids spend playing games may surprise you.  According to the Pew Research Center study, ninety-seven percent of teens ages 12-17 play games. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 8-18 year-olds are spending between half an hour to an hour and a half each day playing video games. On average, students spend about as much time each day on homework – about 50 minutes – as they do playing games.

Peg Steffen gets this. Peg is the education director for the National Ocean Service, and led the development team that created NOAA’s WaterLife game. She says that games like Waterlife are increasingly important to meet the needs of digital natives – children who have grown up surrounded by digital technology.

[PEG STEFFEN] “We’re finding that games are becoming more and more highly thought-of in the educational world as a tool to keep digital kids interested in school. Digital students now are different than they were 15 years ago. They need different kinds of methodologies, they don’t tend to want to sit and do work sheets any more. They want to be more highly engaged in collaborative activities, in group activities, in problem-solving, in meeting challenges, and especially they’re very interested in meeting some environmental challenges. And games can help fill that need.”

While educational games are all about keeping digital kids engaged, Peg said that it’s also about ensuring that kids today are able to compete and excel in the world down the road. In other words, games like WaterLife are about teaching important concepts, but they can also be powerful tools to help develop important life skills.

[PEG STEFFEN] “Those skills include things like strategic thinking, interpretive analysis, problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and educational games can develop these critical skills, and help to address that pressing need for the United States to strengthen its education system and to prepare these young people for the twenty-first century jobs. Our Web site also includes a lot of additional information about careers, links to educational activities and curricula, materials about what it’s like to be a marine mammal ecologist, for example, and help students find information on the web that might lead them down the path to a science or technology career.”

That Web site that Peg just mentioned is called ‘Planet Arcade,’ and it’s at  The flagship game on this site is WaterLife, but it’s not the only offering kids will find there.

[PEG STEFFEN] “ is a website that we hope that children will visit regularly to understand more environmental issues, and so we have populated it with a number of games that we’ve produced including our signature game, which is Water Life, Where the River Meets the Sea.  But then we have also done some mini-games taken from some of our other offerings and put that on the website in addition to adding links to other games from other federal agencies and partners that have things that will help students understand environmental issues like beach clean-up, whale migration, ocean challenge puzzles, and some other things. So we’ve featured some things from the EPA, from National Geographic, from National Marine Sanctuaries, from Ocean Explorer. So there are a number of highlighted games, but we call it Planet Arcade because it does have an environmental twist to it. So we hope students will know that is the place to go for fun things about the environment.  And it’s getting a lot of traffic.”

When NOAA began the foray into gaming with the WaterLife game a year and a half ago, the first challenge was to come up with a good topic. Peg said it was clear from the start that it needed to be something with a lot of rich content, and it needed to be a topic that tapped into the expertise of NOAA people. After a lot of brainstorming, the team decided to focus on estuaries.

[PEG STEFFEN] “I think because there were a lot, a lot of complex, biological content issues and things that are already found within teachers’ curricula and within the science standards in quite a few coastal states, and we thought this game would be something not only fun for students but useful in the classroom too. So we thought that this had the opportunities for understanding water systems, and ecological food webs, and understanding issues of pollution, uh, looking at marine debris, looking at some really fun critters, and those kind of things, all wrapped up into a really nice package.”

The next challenge was how to actually construct the game. While NOAA had the expertise for the content, Peg’s group had to look outside for expertise in gaming, graphic design, and programming. That led to a first-of-its kind partnership with Computer Gaming and Simulation program at Maryland’s Montgomery College, located only minutes from the NOAA campus.

[PEG STEFFEN] “It’s really tough to build a game with the internal capabilities that NOAA has. We really don’t have a staff large enough to produce a game, and we don’t have a staff that’s knowledgeable enough to produce a game like this.  This is an educational game, which is a serious game with a purpose. That’s different than the usual shoot-em-up games that you find commercially available. But we were, um, able to develop a partnership with Montgomery College. And they have a gaming and simulation department there, and we were able to work with the professor there who garnered the people power through her student population who worked for about a year to put the game together. And they worked on their off-hours, and sometimes they worked as part of their regular college work. And  some of them worked on the simulations, and some of them were developing background coding, some were doing the artwork, some were doing the voice-overs and the music, then they put the whole package together. And the game was launched in April.”

This partnership solved two problems: NOAA got the expertise they needed to build a top-notch game, and the students at the College got invaluable work experience.

[PEG STEFFEN] “One of the biggest problems in game development is the very high cost, and  in order to put together a game like this, the students who develop the game need to have some experiences in their college career in order to go out afterwards and get a job. So having a game like this developed under their watch means they now have something on their resume that looks really good, and so they can go out after college and get a job and point to this as being a product that they worked on when they were in college. And so they are very, very agreeable in working with us and working very long hours in order to get the product done. So it’s a win-win, you know. We get the game developed, using content that NOAA approves, they develop a product that is then used on their resume, so it’s a win-win and we get a game that’s done at a very low cost.”

As the Montgomery College students worked on the components of the game, the NOAA group focused on developing the content, and figuring out how to present information in an interesting way. The challenge was putting all of these moving pieces together.

[PEG STEFFEN] “Developing an educational game is a lot more complex than just developing a lesson plan. Usually a lesson plan has a purpose, one purpose at the end. This particular game that we have developed has a series of objectives, in terms of understanding the food webs, and the parts of the food webs, understanding what recycling is, understanding different kinds of pollution.  This is a much broader topical area than a typical lesson plan would be.  We’re finding that students take 30 to 50 minutes to play the game. Um and we hope that they learn a few important points along the way. It’s not that they’re going to be a coastal manager when they’re done but they’ll have a better sense about the coastal, and the coastal ecosystem and why it’s important. It’s been different to try to visualize what is the purpose and then what’s an interesting challenge that we can develop to get students to understand what it is we’re trying to teach. And it takes a lot more time, because you have to develop the graphics, and the coding and what kind of game are you playing, and then what are the people saying, what’s the script, what’s the music behind it  and it’s almost like developing a movie, you know in terms of all the different parts and pieces that have to come together for this game."

While the completed game has been out in the wild for a while now, Peg said it’s still early to know exactly how well the game is working.

[PEG STEFFEN] “We know that this game has a huge potential to reach, you know, 50 million pre-K to high school student population.  And we know that we’re getting the word out.  But it’s still very early to know that very many people are using it. We’re collecting web statistics. We know we’ve reached tens of thousands of people so far, but we don’t really have the formal evaluation back yet to know what students are actually learning.“

While Peg’s team is now putting together a formal evaluation tool to collect data from classrooms and from individual students, she said they have received a lot of anecdotal evidence -- from kid sending in messages from the Web site, and from testing done with groups of kids as the game was developed – that show that kids like it, and they’re are learning something.

[PEG STEFFEN] “One of the main points of the game, was that they understand the threats to estuaries, and some things they can do to help estuaries.  And so in all the preliminary testing that we did with students, when we did very simple questioning, we said, you know, do you know what an estuary is? And before they started the game they’d say, No. After they finished the game, they knew what an estuary was. Do you know what some of the threats to estuaries are?   So we’re happy that they at least are picking up the main points of an estuary and the threats.  From that standpoint, we’re very happy with the results.”

While WaterLife appears to be a success, Peg said it’s only the beginning.  There’s another game in the works, and once again, NOAA is teaming up with the Computer Gaming and Simulation students from Montgomery College. The new game is about loggerhead turtles. By the way, you’ll hear Peg mention TEDS here – TED stands for Turtle Exclusion Device – clever net designs that allow turtles to escape from fishing nets.

[PEG STEFFEN] “We haven’t determined the name yet. But it’s looking at all the stakeholders in preserving loggerhead turtle populations, and especially preserving and protecting nesting sites. So the game is looking at the perspective of a politician who’s developing laws, it’s looking at stakeholders like fishermen, tourists, beach-goers, environmentalists, and it’s also looking at the turtle perspective, and the whelk, which is a food source for turtles. So it’s an interesting scenario in which the player takes the position of each one of those stakeholders and then tries to manage their actions based on their options. So for the fisherman, they have to make choices in terms of what gear will they use, whether they use hooks or nets, or nets with teds which allow turtles to get out, and if they use certain kinds of nets, they won’t make as much money, and so they have to make some real life decisions based on choices that are available to them, and whether they will be catching turtles, which hopefully they don’t.”

The new game will benefit from the experience the team gathered from WaterLife, and they’ve learned a lot -- not only about how to construct a complex educational game, but how to make it fun so kids will want to play it.

[PEG STEFFEN] “I think that keeping it fun, don’t make a game too heavy because students won’t play it. But students like a challenge, they like to solve problems, and they like to solve environmental problems. They also love cute critters. Oscar the Sea Otter is very lovable. And the next game has an adorable sea turtle, and that will keep the girls coming. We found that girls  to solve challenges and problems and help animals.  And so if we, if we keep going down the path that we’ve been doing, we’re pretty positive that we’ll have a nice population of students that will try out our games and like them. But there is a lot of competition for their time.  There’s an amazing amount of websites out there that students go back to over and over and over again. And the trick is finding that mix of, of fun challenges that students will try over and over again.”


That was Peg Steffen, Education Director with the National Ocean Service’s Communication and Education Division. Many thanks to Peg for joining us for this episode.

Once again, the Web site where you can find WaterLife and a bunch of other educational games is

And surf over to for more NOS education content produced by Peg’s group, ranging from tutorials and case studies for students, to lesson plans and professional development for teachers.

If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us send us an email at

Now let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.