Click here to return to the previous page.

Los Angeles Times - July 8, 2002

Jessica Ruane, 12

Cartoon Lips, Virtual Fashion and Physics

The interactive Web site Whyville lures girls into the world of science

Times Staff Writer

July 8 2002

The mysterious spots began popping up without explanation on the digital faces of Whyvillians.

At first, the spots looked like freckles on the cartoon-like avatars of visitors to the science education Web site called Whyville. Then they developed into red acne-like welts. When users tried to chat, an electronic "ah-choo," courtesy of the site's San Marino-based programmers, wiped out their words.

Dubbed "Whypox," the plague was designed to trigger an interest in learning more about epidemiology and the spread of diseases. And it proved to be a terrific motivator on a site dominated by adolescent girls who are as image-obsessed in cyberspace as they are in the hallways of their junior high schools.

It also was an example of why an innovative attempt to mine the educational potential of the Internet is gaining international attention among adolescents and researchers alike.

The philosophy of Whyville ( is what its founder calls "edu-tainment" because it taps the Internet's interactivity to get kids engaged in learning.

Some close watchers of Whyville worry, however, that users get so wrapped up in activities such as choosing lips and noses for their digital faces and chatting that science becomes secondary to socializing. Yet researchers also theorize that those aspects of Whyville help explain why more than two-thirds of its 225,000 registered users are female, most between 11 and 13.

That statistic "runs very counter to what we know about girls being interested in science and technology," said Yasmin B. Kafai, a UCLA researcher who studies computerized learning environments.

Educators say many girls lose interest in science starting in middle school, apparently because of misgivings about their math abilities and fears that they'll be seen as unfashionable nerds.

Computer use among girls drops off dramatically after age 13, experts say, citing a dearth of games and activities that don't involve speed, fighting or competition.

Whyville, launched in 1999, didn't start out with the intention of countering those trends. But its apparent success in capturing girls' attention has caught the eye of the National Science Foundation, which over the years has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to achieve that same goal.

Now the agency is underwriting a study to figure out the formula and how it can be improved upon in designing computer software, and even in setting up classrooms.

Caltech's Brian Foley, one of the researchers, says Whyville's winning combination includes noncompetitive games and activities, social interaction and, especially, the opportunity for girls (and boys) to create their own identities. "Those are things girls really appreciate and look for," Foley said. "It probably shouldn't have been a surprise that there were a lot of girls on there."

About 500 new users a day join Whyville's population. Although it's free and has no advertising, those willing to buy a Whypass for $4.95 a month get priority for accessing the site. That's important because Whyville has become so crowded that, for about 12 hours each day, more users want in than can be accommodated.

Those who succeed in entering see the face they've designed float into the 3-D Whyville town square. They can remain and chat with other users or they can visit popular gathering spots such as the town swimming pool, the "Sportsplatz" or the playground.

Or they can go shopping at the "mall"--a hugely popular activity on the site--for new face parts, virtual clothing or accessories, such as glasses or jewelry for their online persona, all drawn and "sold" by their fellow Whyvillians.

The coin of this realm is "clams," and they're earned in two ways: by engaging in one of the Web site's 12 science or four math activities or through profits generated by the sales of one's products. A third way--which Whyvillians came up with on their own--is for "newbies" to beg for handouts from the better-off "oldbies." Once someone has enough clams, she can buy a plot of land, build a house, decorate it and have friends over for chat fests.

One goal of the NSF study is to analyze how much the citizens of Whyville are actually learning about science through all those activities.

"Is it entertainment as a means of learning or is it just entertaining?" asked Ruta Sevo, who directs the NSF's program for gender equity in math- and science-related fields. "I doubt that no learning is happening, but the question is how much."

Consider the case of Whypox.

Just after Valentine's Day, the site's designers at Numedeon Inc., a privately held company, infected the online identities of a handful of the most frequent users with the pox. They also posted a memo on the site's bulletin board suggesting that users check out " 'what's new' at the Whyville version of the national Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention]."

From there, the pox spread through contact. And as it did, so did rumors and panic. "I became sad and horrified," wrote one user, screen name Girlyleo, in an article posted on the site's online newspaper.

Soon pox-free Whyvillians were shunning the infected. Deviously enterprising users began offering fake cures. A lively trade in skin-colored digital cover-ups and paper bags with eyeholes emerged.

"I hated Whypox," said Jessica Ruane, 12, of Westwood, who averages about two hours a day on the Whyville site. "It stayed, like, five days, and you get, like, pox all over your face."

But, whether or not she liked it, Jessica wanted to figure out what was going on. So she visited the site's faux CDC Web page to investigate.

There she encountered a simulation of how disease spreads, a real-time graph of how many Whyvillians had been infected and links to an actual newspaper article about a wave of real unexplained rashes affecting East Coast schools.

"I read everything about it and I was like, 'Oh!' " Jessica said.

Several hundred Whyville users then entered a contest to guess when the epidemic would come to an end, using the knowledge they'd gained.

James N. Bower, a bearded, ponytailed former Caltech neurobiologist who is the guiding force and one of the biggest investors in Numedeon, said he is convinced that Whyville's informal, indirect approach to education is effective.

"There's nothing more entertaining than education, done properly," said Bower, who this spring left Pasadena for San Antonio, where he has a joint appointment at the University of Texas and its health sciences campus.

"Knowledge attained through an active process of sorting through data and connecting that to what you already know is knowledge that sticks," he added.

Most Web sites for children focus on either entertainment or the traditional educational format in which users answer questions based on posted texts. Worried about liability, the majority have banned chat and are tightly formatted by adults.

Whyville, in contrast, is an open-ended learning community that evolves day to day. Users, for example, helped design the site's justice system (those who swear or annoy can be zapped into invisibility), write for its newspaper (one popular topic is the ongoing rivalry between "newbies" and "oldbies") and even set up a charity to distribute face parts to the less fortunate. (It's considered bad taste to take too many free parts.)

A user whose screen name is "link123" summed it up in an article in the Whyville Times, concluding that Whyville is "more than an educational site! It's a lifestyle simulation."

Bower is a pioneer in the field of computational biology, which involves devising mathematical models to represent biological processes. But he has also been a vocal advocate of getting schools to replace textbook-based lessons with "hands on" kits. So, for example, kids would plant seeds, watch them grow and discuss what they saw rather than read about it in a book.

Frustrated by his efforts to reform science education in real-world classrooms, Bower helped to create Whyville. One of its science-based activities involves making an animated skater spin as fast as possible to learn the basics of angular momentum, namely, that the more compact an object is, the faster it can be made to spin. Completing the site's "Solstice Safari" gives participants a feel for how and why the seasons change, and the "Geodig" calls for categorizing rocks by their characteristics.

The connection to formal scientific or mathematical knowledge is not often explicit. When users choreograph a dance routine, "we don't tell them, but what they're actually doing is learning about vectors using the Cartesian system," Bower said.

It's clear that not all users go to the site primarily to learn about science.

Jessica Ruane comes from a scientific family. Her father, Peter Ruane, is a well-known HIV-AIDS researcher at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and her mother, Margie Morgan, is a microbiologist who runs the hospital's diagnostic clinic.

But, Morgan said, Jessica is bored by classroom science at her private school.

That's why Morgan was shocked--and impressed--with how much time Jessica spends in Whyville. "It's a very effective mechanism for entertaining kids, and I have a daughter who's not easy to entertain," she said.

She has straight dark hair and freckles and was wearing her school uniform when she sat down one day recently at her dad's computer to visit Whyville. By contrast, her computer avatar has highlighted red hair, large purplish lips, pink cheeks and a beauty mark and wears a slinky black sheath.

She checked her store's inventory of body parts. She's nowhere near the most prolific seller of face parts. But she does well enough, especially with "raspberry glossy lips." "If you want to make money, you want to make lips," she said, hinting at the fashion sense of her fellow Whyville citizens.

On average, Whyvillians visit the site three times weekly, for about 45 minutes each session, and participate in 6.7 science activities per week. At any one time, about a third of the users are chatting and the rest are engaged in activities that, in addition to those involving science, include shopping, working on their houses and redesigning their faces.

"They spend so much time on their faces, I wonder if that's a good thing," Foley said.

Jessica Ruane said the site's science-related activities are not challenging. But she does them anyway because they earn her more clams.

Other users, however, exclaim that Whyville has made learning science fun in a way that textbooks or classrooms never have. "Wow! I honestly can't believe how much we learn from this site, and how much of the learning we take for granted," a user with the screen name of Maiko wrote in the site newspaper. "Just because it's fun doesn't mean it's not educational!"

In response to some of the concerns, Whyville's designers are introducing new elements that are more explicitly educational. This summer, for example, nutrition will begin playing a role in appearance.

Users will have to spend some of their clams on food. And they'll find that if they buy only hamburgers and French fries and not enough fruits and vegetables, their carefully designed faces will begin to fade and look sickly.

Kafai, the UCLA professor, said the kind of informal learning that occurs in an environment such as Whyville is difficult to quantify. "There's a fine line between knowing something in a vague sort of way but not being able to use it ... and not knowing very much at all," she said.

Still, she said, what occurs in Whyville represents a promising start. "Obviously, this is a new medium, and we have to work and explore what works," she said.

Click here to return to the previous page.