Social Learning for Science Education: Spongelab


The field of educational technology has had the seemingly unending potential for producing passionate, enthusiastic individuals. No more so than partner and co-founder of the multi-award winning online interactive science platform, Spongelab, Jeremy Friedburg.  His development of this platform for exploring science content comes from his passion for game based and social learning, and the mantra ‘learning through play’.

Spongelab is a prime example of his belief, in which an online community of teachers and students interact and learn from one another through game-based digital learning content. Known as a global science community, industry partners, teachers, and students contribute and collaborate to science education through a platform supported by social learning. Players can use the platform to follow other students or educators, share lessons and earn badges. Spongelab could be described as games within a game, where players can earn points by playing games on the platform.

Used in over 155 countries, Spongelab is among the top 30 most popular academic resources on Google. Their community combines over 800 pieces of science content in one location, with a focus on carefully crafted game based learning. Spongelab build their own games, and offer game production services for the global science community. Their vision is that interactive media should be available to everyone, regardless of the economy.

The platform has lesson plans, images, games, animations, e-texts and videos ranging from snowflakes under the microscope, to cell membrane simulations, to videos on plant mitosis. Players can use a search engine to find the games, and the platform supports content organization and annotation.

One of the most impressive games that Spongelab have produced is the History of Biology. It combines a creative problem based learning approach with an online, interactive scavenger hunt. Students learn about the history of biology through a mysterious storyline that follows the historical timeline of biology starting in the 17th century. These historical concepts are aligned with core senior high school and some college-level biology curriculums.

In the game, players act as a laboratory assistant to Nobel laureate Dr Walden Shyre. After his mysterious disappearance, they have to solve puzzles and investigate Internet sites, objects, and clues to find out where he has disappeared to and why. The result is a swirling tale that has enough mystery to keep students hooked. The story weaves important learning concepts from the history of biology into problem-based missions. These missions include cell theory and heredity, the technology behind biology (such as the microscope), the key historical figures such as Hooke and Darwin responsible for the development of biology, and the ethical, social and political issues that have surrounded it since its inception.

The response from educators has been very positive, with examples of increased student collaboration and comprehension by combining the game with interactive SMART boards. Ian Fogarty, a Science teacher and educational researcher at Riverview High School, New Brunswick, found that this approach improved student communication, teamwork and critical thinking.

Another popular game that embodies Spongelab’s creative problem-solving mindset is the anatomy game Build-a-Body. This game teaches human anatomy and physiology through a drag and drop functionality. Players must assemble an organ system from a set of organs by dropping them into the correct position. The game progresses to case studies, where players link an organ to a functional problem within an organ system. As a testament to its game play and great design, this game was a runner up in the Science Magazine International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. It is similar to an interactive jigsaw puzzle, and is a great complement to K-12 biology classes. It is also available as an iPad app on the app store.

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