It’s the year 2252, ten years after the Great
Plague that ran through the Earth’s population, killing millions, and
causing the collapse of civilization. Now the Earth has entered a new
Dark Age—a time when much of the knowledge from the past has been
are a member of an elite group known as The Reconstructors. You help the
People by recovering lost medical knowledge. Your skills are urgently
needed because painkillers have almost disappeared. Stories and
documents refer to powerful pain-relieving medicine from the past.
Your mission is to reconstruct the knowledge and
uncover this medicinal mystery.
So begins the first episode of a website designed
by and for middle school students: reconstructors.rice.edu. In designing
The Reconstructors, our goal was to combine aspects of
problem-based learning and science standards and deliver them over the
Web via interesting multimedia. We had conducted a thorough survey of
over 500 adolescents to determine their technology habits, preferences,
and favorite websites (Miller, Schweingruber, and Brandenburg 2000;
Miller 2000). Our findings revealed that both males and females enjoy
mystery stories and that they spend the majority of their computer time
Problem-based learning specialists suggest that the
problem should be situated in complex and meaningful contexts (Barrows
1986), and that students should want to solve the problem for its own
merit, not for some extrinsic reward. We decided that the science
problem would focus on the biology and history of drugs, specifically
opioids—a class of powerful, analgesic drugs derived from the poppy
plant. Our underlying motivation was to teach adolescents about the use
and abuse of drugs, but from a scientifc analysis. Our goal was for
students to understand why they should “just say no.” Next, we
turned to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for funding; to teachers
and students for help with the design; and to Macromedia’s Flash for a
way to deliver our interactive materials efficiently over the Internet.
Sandy Bankston, a veteran middle school science teacher, helped us
construct the learning objectives and align them with science content,
teaching, and assessment standards. Joyce Ramig, another experienced
middle school science teacher, allowed us time with her seventh grade
students to conduct focus groups over several months.
First, the focus groups tackled the ‘problem.’
Boys and girls were divided into two different groups, and each group
gave us ideas for characters, names, and the setting. Next, we presented
sketches of all the website elements to the groups for their votes. The
only idea from the focus groups that we did not use was the boys’
request to give the characters weapons.
With the problem in hand, we began to weave
together the learning objectives. Solving the problem meant engaging
students in several of the concepts that align with the National
Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) and the Benchmarks for
Scientific Literacy (AAAS 1993):
Scientific investigations sometimes
result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or
procedures for investigations, or develop new technologies to
improve the collection of data.
Specialized cells perform specialized functions
in multicellular organisms.
Technological solutions have intended benefits
and unintended consequences.
Some drugs change how the body functions and
can lead to addiction.
Scientists formulate and test their
explanations of nature using observation, experiments, and
theoretical and mathematical models.
Tracing the history of science can show how
difficult it was for scientific innovators to break through the
accepted ideas of their time to reach the conclusions that we
currently have today.
All of these content standards are wrapped around
the history and neurobiology of naturally occurring and synthetic
opioids, beginning with the ancient use of the opium poppy (Papaver
somniferum) to relieve pain. In The Reconstructors, students are
challenged to use higher-level thinking skills to construct their
knowledge about opioids. For example, the virtual experiments engage
students in analyzing data and drawing conclusions.
The conceptual flow if the adventure series goes
something like this:
Episode 1: Plaguing Problem—There is a
mystery substance. The substance is tested for its analgesic properties
against a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID—aspirin) and a
control (saline) in a virtual experiment. Students analyze the data,
report conclusions, and study discussions about the differences in pain
relief between the NSAID and the mystery substance.
Episode 2: Ancient Alarm—Because the
mystery substance proves to have pain-relieving properties and we know
it comes from a plant, we want to determine its botanical source by
using a taxonomic key. Students identify the source as the poppy plant
and the mystery substance as opium. As students read through historic
documents, they learn that a war was fought between China and Britain in
the late 1800s because the British were making opium widely available to
the Chinese. The opium caused widespread addiction.
Episode 3: Analgesic Anxiety—Using virtual
High Performance Liquid Chromatography, several compounds (alkaloids)
are separated from opium in an attempt to remove its addictive
components from the analgesic ones. Students test two alkaloids,
morphine and codeine, for their pain relieving effectiveness in a
virtual experiment—they find that both are addictive. Finally,
students examine the historical development of heroin, which was assumed
to be a non-addictive alternative to morphine.
Episode 4: Mystery of Morpheus—Now knowing
that the compounds relive pain, students investigate how they work in
the body. Conducting a virtual re-enactment of the original experiment
using frog hearts by Loewi (for which he later won the Nobel Prize),
students deduce that the signals between neurons are both electrical and
chemical. Students verify the existence of neurotransmitters, and
explore the notion of how both endogenous opioids and poppy-derived
opioids are able to bind to the same receptors.
Why use this Web adventure in the classroom? As
Joyce explains, “A big component for middle school integrated science
is a study of living things. In human biology, this study includes labs
to establish an understanding of each body system and activities that
highlight the fact that these body systems work together. Studies of
disease and medicine and drug abuse are also an important focus. In my
science class, we use The Reconstructors to culminate our Human
Body Systems Unit. It allows my students to become involved in a
wonderful detective story while reviewing an aspect of the human body.”
See Figure 1 for more reasons to engage your students in The
Reconstructors. When you are ready, go to reconstructors.rice.edu
and let the adventure begin.
Figure 1. Why you should use The
Reconstructors website in your classroom
From a content standpoint, the history of opium, as well as its
biological consequences, is relevant to understand how, when, and
why we use opioids today. The basics of brain biology and neuron
structure and function are covered, and the episodes answer ‘why’
opioids have the potential to be addictive. More importantly, the
episodes help establish the biological basis of addiction. The
game features questions that change on a random basis. This was
done so students could not simply tell each other the answers and
continue in the “happy click” mode without actually taking
time to think about the questions. We continue to revise the game
based on teacher and student suggestions.
The adventure episodes are free and relatively easy to download.
All it takes is a Flash plug-in that is included in the latest
version of any Internet browser or can be downloaded in minutes,
depending on the speed of your classroom connection. If there are
technology issues such as firewalls that prevent you from playing
the game, we can send you a CD-ROM version.
Each lesson includes a pretest, posttest, answer keys, and
learning objectives, which are located on the website’s Teacher
Pages. When you click on the screen to access the tests and answer
keys, you will be prompted to enter a password. Simply click “OK,”
as no password is required. Classroom activities designed to
accompany the Web adventure will be available on the website’s
Teacher Pages in the spring of 2002. The classroom components for
each episode include one hands-on experiment and one activity that
involves technology integration, such as using a spreadsheet or
creating a Power Point presentation.
The initial two episodes have been field-tested with over 150
students. Given a pretest and posttest on the science concepts,
students demonstrated significant gains in knowledge and
comprehension. We believe that this demonstrates the efficacy of
both the content and the novel format.
If you are looking for an activity that can be done independently,
for extra credit, or as enrichment for students who desire
material that go beyond the textbook, consider The
Reconstructors. At home or even in a one-computer classroom,
the episodes are easily available and normally take about 20
minutes each to complete. Concluding each episode is a set of “cool
links” that will take students to information of interest at
You and your student can also become part of our design team. We
encourage you to try out the learning environment with your
students and provide us with feedback. We welcome input from
anyone who plays the adventure. We’re listening and we’d love
to hear from you.
Leslie Miller is a senior research
scholar, Janice Mayes is a science education specialist, and Donna
Smith is an instructional design specialist. All are at Rice
University’s Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning in
American Association for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS). 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford
Barrows, H.S. 1986. A taxonomy of problem-based learning methods. Medical
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Miller, L.M. 2000. Middle school students and technology: Habits and
preferences. TechEdge. 20(1): 22–25.
Miller, L.M., H. Schweingruber, C.L. Brandenburg. 2000. Technology
acculturation among adolescents: The school and home environments.
Conference proceedings of ED-MEDIA 2000: World Conference on Educational
Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications, 26 June–1 July,
National Research Council. 1996. National science education standards.
Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.