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Success Story out of the ED/IES SBIR Program:
ECO: An Online Virtual World for Middle School Environmental Literacy and Collaborative Problem Solving

Screen shot of ECO: An Online Virtual World for Middle School Environmental Literacy and Collaborative Problem Solving

Project Title: ECO: An Online Virtual World for Middle School Environmental Literacy and Collaborative Problem Solving

Related ED/IES SBIR Awards:
Strange Loop Games, 2014 Phase I ($149,833); 2015 Phase II ($900,000); 2017 Phase I ($149,152)

Key Information:
Strange Loop Games
Location: Seattle, WA
Video Demo:
Contact: John Krajewski;

ECO is a multi-player ecology game designed to prepare middle and high school students to be environmentally literate and capable citizens. To play the game, groups or a class of students enter a shared online world featuring a simulated ecosystem of plants and animals. Students co-create their civilization by measuring, modeling, and analyzing the underlying ecosystem, and advocate for proposed plans to classmates and make decisions as a group. Students cooperate and employ science-based decision-making activities to prevent the destruction of the environment. The game includes teacher resources to support the alignment of game play to learning goals, and implementation. ECO is designed to be played during or outside of class (at home or after school) to augment traditional curriculum and instruction. ECO is designed to target Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, focusing especially on 21st century skills of collaboration, self-directed learning, leadership, scientific argumentation, and applied learning.

Research and Development
In the pre-production phase, the team surveyed teachers about concepts that align to learning goals and common misconceptions to share the narrative arc of the story line and the kinds of decisions that the player makes. In a pilot study at the end of this phase, ECO was implemented with 60 students from five classrooms. The team found that the prototype functioned as intended, that students found the game to be engaging, and that students were able to collaborate with classmates during gameplay. During production, the team used an iterative process with formative research around the design and usability of the custom interactions that are part of each game, including testing engagement, as well as a system architecture that enabled user-controlled avatars to complete basic tasks. Throughout the development process, assets (for example, trees, vegetation, animals, landscapes) were created and added to the environment. Throughout, developers tested the program in science classes and refined ECO after each study, including aligning gameplay to relevant education standards to increase integration into existing curricular and instructional practices.

In a qualitative study with 39 middle school students playing ECO, researchers analyzed in-game chat logs, which revealed that students engaged in discussions on STEM content and other topics relevant to civics education and environment systems. For example, students conducted investigations in the game, referencing data from graphs as they communicated about the issues at hand, and discussed and coordinated with each other to ensure that all of the skills necessary to succeed in the game were present in the community, showing engagement with the game's social systems.

After development was completed, researchers conducted a pilot study of ECO with 88 students in middle and high schools, 44 of whom played the game over two to four weeks and 44 of whom engaged in business-as-usual activities. Results demonstrated the usability and feasibility of ECO, as all students were able to successfully participate, and teachers were able to integrate the content and student discussions within a unit on environmental science. In a post-game assessment, students who played ECO had higher scores on a measure of attitudes towards the environment and on a measure of knowledge of systems (for example, data reference, economy and development, and environmental strategy) than students in the control group. There were no differences between the groups on a post-test measure of content knowledge.

In 2018, ECO was publicly released on the STEAM online store, where it has sold over 400,000 copies and has a "Very Positive" rating with over 4,000 reviews. ECO is currently available for use on PCs with graphics card installed. In addition, as game-streaming services like Stadia continue to grow, ECO is being re-developed to be available on internet-capable devices, including laptops and mobile phones.

Industry Awards for Innovation and Recognition:

Selected News Stories:

  • 2019, May – Cosmos Magazine highlights ECO
  • 2019, January – A class of students at Hathaway Brown School produces a video story of their experience playing ECO
  • 2017, December – Buzzfeed features ECO as a top SBIR innovation.
  • 2017, March – Wired UK features ECO
  • 2015, June – The Washington Post publishes a blog highlighting ECO
  • 2015, December – SBIR Pulse features ECO creator John Krajewski in a Q&A blog