Margret O'Shea
September 01, 1993

Donna Matheson squeezes into the narrow space between her computer and the office wall at the end of a hot, humid afternoon. As the machine crackles leisurely to life, Matheson—a graduate student in nutrition—winces in mock protest at having to hear the recorded introduction for what seems like the thousandth time.

M. Scott Johnson

Do you know what scurvy is? Kids learn nutrition while adventuring with Columbus in this Penn State-developed computer program.

"My name is Christopher Columbus," responds the HyperCard screen, cheerfully undeterred. "I entered upon the sea sailing, and so I have continued to this day. As apprentice to the ship's admiral on the return voyage from the New World, ye shall see many strange and beautiful sights, and new lessons will unfold before thee."

Matheson types a command and is immediately congratulated: "Welcome aboard, Seamate Donna!" A new screen appears, depicting a skinny, bow-legged girl peeping back and forth from behind a large wooden barrel. Matheson is first invited to write a brief story about the girl. This completed, the computer informs her that the sailors intend to make the girl walk the plank. Her bowed legs, they say, may be a sign she is a witch. Crying, the girl protests that she is just a poor stowaway, escaping an orphanage where it was always dark and she had too little to eat. Can Matheson assist in the investigation with some independent research on bone disease?

"The program is designed to elicit a range of different skills from a number of different subject areas," says Matheson, pointing out the English and scientific research skills that schoolchildren will need in order to complete the stowaway exercise. (The object is for students to do some library research, then decide for themselves whether the sailors' judgment of the girl is accurate.)

"Schoolteachers often devote little time to nutrition," Matheson notes, since home economics classes are disappearing due to budgetary constraints and in health class topics such as AIDS and drug abuse seem more urgent. "We've designed this program so that kids learn nutrition while at the same time developing skills in other areas," including math, history, English, science, social studies—even self-esteem and a sensitivity to differences among people.

The HyperCard program, called Ship to Shore, was conceived by Cheryl Achterberg (Matheson's adviser and an associate professor of nutrition at Penn State) and developed together with Kyle Peck and Catherine Augustine of the Instructional Systems program in Penn State's College of Education. Achterberg and her colleagues are evaluating not just how effectively it teaches nutrition, but also how well the computer technology seems matched both to its audience and to the specific messages being communicated.

Ship to Shore is now being piloted in a local school, and Matheson is interviewing schoolchildren before and after they've completed it. She's using a method called "concept mapping" to create visual maps representing the conceptual links children are able to make in thinking about nutrition.

"I'll also be recording what kids are saying to each other, and seeing what does and doesn't work." For example, because the children work through the two-week program in groups of two or three, the researchers will want to know whether the program provides more opportunity for quiet kids to interact than does a big classroom.

Based on the results of the pilot-testing, the researchers are likely to tinker further with Ship to Shore before releasing it officially. For example, the little-girl-as-a-witch idea may have to go: Some teachers have suggested that witches are too scary for some younger children, and may conjure up images of the Salem witchcraft trials.

Computer programs are cost effective, Matheson points out, because they allow many students to participate at the same time with little teacher input; that frees the teacher for more one-on- one attention with the students. But, she says, "We need to evaluate how effective they actually are in communicating different messages."

Donna Matheson is a graduate student in nutrition. Her adviser, Cheryl Achterberg, Ph.D., is associate professor of nutrition and director of the Penn State Nutrition Center, 121 Henderson Building South, University Park PA 16802; 814-863-2916. Funding for this project was provided by Penn State's Vice President for Learning and Telecommunications. HyperCard is a trademark of Apple Computer, Inc.

Last Updated September 01, 1993