Scaffolding Inquiry to Foster Problem Solving Skills

The success of the United States has been built on innovation. Unfortunately, our education system is failing to produce the next generation of innovators required for the US to be competitive in the global market.


To solve this problem, we must foster problem-solving skills in students from all backgrounds - not just those in prosperous private and public schools. Technology can level the playing field in this regard and empower teachers and students alike. By fostering these skills, we will provide the workforce and future innovators that out science and technology-based industries need.


Inquiry-based learning: Myths and Realities

While many promulgate "inquiry-based learning", few take into account the realities of our students abilities. For example, it is well documented that putting a high school student into a purely inquiry-based activity can engender frustration as they have not yet developed the skills necessary to perform such tasks - or more specifically: their education to date has subdued any such facets due to an emphasis on rote memorization: e.g., "learn these definitions, they 'll be on the test".


Solving the problem: Scaffolding Inquiry

Our initial project was funded by the NIH with the goal of developing new technologies that foster problem-solving skills. To this aim, we leveraged the power of a 3D videogame engine to develop interactive case studies that make science relevant to the real world and engage students. Within these case studies, we have a virtual mentor that helps to guide the inquiry for the student, and in-built resources that the student can access at any point to review the science at hand. A brief synopsis of one of case studies is as follows:


Student is given the role of a veterinarian and logs into the software.

They are introduced to a patient that is on the way to the clinic - it's a calf that is having seizures.

Before the calf arrives, they must review an interactive "manual" that contains the science concepts they will need to save the calf. (The manual contains 3D animations and interactive exercises that can be accessed at any time).

The calf arrives and they then "fly into" the calf's brain where they collect data from parts of the brain.

In their patient record, they interpret the data and, using what they have learned from the manual, form a hypothesis.

They have 3 treatment options to choose from; using their hypothesis they choose the treatment they think will save the calf.

They then fly back into the brain and see the effects of the treatment, gather the post-treatment data and interpret. If they are successful, they see a video of the healthy calf. If they are not, they can modify their hypothesis and try again (hence, like a game, students can "fail safely" - they can't kill the calf).

At the end, they write a case report for the owner, explaining how the science concept (I'm not going to tell you what that is!) caused the seizures and how they used this same concept to save the calf.


In completing this case study, the student has put into practice what so many preach: the habits of mind that scientists use to solve problems.


This approach works

In field testing in public schools, over 500 introductory biology students have saved the calf. We test in public schools with high proportions of under-privileged students (typically 90-95% of students are on free or reduced meals) that are failing to meet adequately yearly progress and have graduation rates of 50-70%. We test all of our software on 4 and 5 year old computers to ensure that they will work on the computers in public schools and each case is designed to fit into a typical lesson period - it usually takes 30-40 minutes for a student to complete a case. We have received great feedback from students and teachers, and we are currently testing three case studies to evaluate their impact on learning.


Who we are

We are a team of scientists, science educators, game designers, musicians, engineers, digital artists and programmers from a state university. We are all determined to make an impact on education and we are convinced that our approach has great potential.


We are hoping that Digital Promise will consider us for funding, so if you think we have a good idea - give us a thumbs up!


You can learn more about our project (including a 9-minute documentary) at

p.s. my avatar is a screen shot from the calf's virtual brain.



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Idea No. 41