Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has a degree in medicine, so I would expect that he’s had some rudimentary biology education at some point in his life. However, you wouldn’t know it just from glancing through the entries in his “Wastebook“, a list of projects funded by the government that he considers wasteful. A good handful of the projects on his list are STEM projects, and in one such entry, he takes to task a project funded by the National Science Foundation:
Researchers at the University of California-Riverside have pushed the mission of the National Science Foundation to new limits. In 2011, they received an NSF grant of almost $150,000 to create a video game called “RapidGuppy” for cell phones and other mobile devices. In the game, targeted for students 12-21 years old, users control the growth and evolution of a guppy. Students can gain insight into the environmental factors that cause the fish to adapt. To reach the public, the researchers will use “[a]n extensive social media campaign,“ which they see as increasing the public level of interest in evolution, genetic change, and science careers. Using taxpayer dollars, “RapidGuppy” might soon be on Facebook, right alongside “FarmVille” and “Scrabble.”
The first thing I noticed upon reading this is that Senator Coburn understands neither the scope of the project nor the science behind it. He says that users will “control the … evolution of a guppy”, but anyone who has taken an introductory biology class knows that evolution is something that happens over generations and is not something any one guppy can do. You may say that this could be an honest mistake or just being ‘lazy’ in communicating the gist of the project, but in my opinion it shows that either he doesn’t understand the science that he is bashing or he doesn’t mind spreading misinformation to his constituents. I have to wonder whether or not there’s more than a little bit of anti-evolution sentiment behind the reasons why this particular project made his list.
He also fails to mention that the educational game will be linked to a website that shows videos, photos, and descriptions of actual evolution and ecology research being conducted by the scientists involved in The Guppy Project. He misleads you into thinking that the sole purpose is to make a video game, but in actuality the video game will serve to generate interest in evolution and ecology and funnel those interested parties into the actual research. Given the age group being targeted, this is an excellent strategy to slowly acclimate young science students from the abstract ideas of “adaptation” and “evolution” to what those terms mean in application, and then to what that sort of research really looks like.
“Video games” in the classroom are nothing new. I grew up with Math Blaster, Mario Teaches Typing, and other video games (including one awe-inspiring oceanography game whose name eludes me at the moment) being used more and more as computers began to infiltrate the classroom in the mid-1990s. Now students can use mobile apps and online games to dissect frogs, explore their anatomy, learn the life cycle of a star, and explore other topics that would otherwise be too difficult (due to rarity, location, or ethical reasons) or too abstract to touch with their bare hands. This may just be my own opinion, but I do not believe that it is wasteful to invest in the STEM education of our middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students. Apparently Senator Coburn disagrees.
Image: Male and female guppies, Poecilia reticulata. Image credit: Marrabbio2, Wikimedia Commons.