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Adventures with Dr. Smallz: Creating a Powerful Need to Know

Leah Hirsch

6th Grade Science Teacher, New York City
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Creative Role-Play Encourages Deeper Science Learning (Transcript)

Student: How do we know there are tiny things in a drop of pond water? We can use a microscope to view the pond water.

Student: Imagine you could shrink yourself and walk into a tiny cell. What is it like inside a cell? It's a fantastic journey.

Student: Fascinating.

Teacher: Fascinating, very close. Thank you so much.

Student: It feels like you're playing when you're actually learning.

Student: Like sometimes, you could like play a game and not even know that you're learning.

Student: You're actually having fun and you realize it, and then you realize that you're learning while you're doing it.

Teacher: I have to ask that question, what hat are the kids going to wear in this mission that they're going to be on? And that's part of the curriculum design process. I think most teachers do curriculum design with, "Okay, what do they need to learn?" But at Quest, it's "What do they need to learn, how are we going to engage them? And what role are the kids going to be stepping into and what story are the kids going to be stepping into?" So it's all a part of creating this narrative.

Student: Ten slash PTP, HTTP--

Student: Dot colon slash, slash. That's exactly what's in front of the website.

Teacher: Can I see?

Student: Yeah, take it--

Teacher: Are you sure that's what you see?

Student: Yeah, HTTP.

Student: That's the slide.

Teacher: That's really weird, I totally thought your specimen number was going to be a plant cell.

Student: Wow.

Student: That is ODO.

Student: The light switch is bent.

[ children talking ]

Teacher: D-E, that second letter's an E.

Student: An E?

Teacher: Greetings, TWTW students. I'm Doctor Smalls. I work for Shrinkly Labs. I am honored to say, you are invited to compete in the 2013 Shrinkly Labs cell city design competition.

The "Need To Know" is created by this cast of characters. There's a teeny little doctor, named Doctor Smalls, and he has shrunken himself and put himself inside of the body of one of his patients, because he was trying to find out what this mystery disease was. And in shrinking himself, he lost all of his medical vocabulary and he sends my students a communique. So the "Need To Know" has helped get me out of this body, I'm trapped, and help cure my patient. So it's actually like completely ridiculous and the kids know it's a game. But it's so fun for them to become a part of this narrative that they do get right in and they do get involved and start figuring out the clues of, "Well, where is Doctor Smalls now? Well, we know he's in this hollow space," and they start learning about the body from basically these clues of his location in the body. So they know that it's all made up and they know it's all just play, but it's fun for them. It's much more fun than just, you know, PowerPoint after PowerPoint, "And now we're going to learn about the respiratory system, boys and girls."

Student: I think we play games at Quest to learn because it helps us incorporate learning into having fun.

Student: You could learn from a game and be like, "Oh, that was so fun," and then like read like a book and be like, "Oh, that was fun..."

Teacher: It leads some kids to get sidetracked. "Well, you know, this isn't real," or "I don't care about Doctor Smalls." But for ninety-nine percent of the kids, it's like, they're totally in.

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  • Director / Camera / Editor: JR Sheetz
  • Associate Producer, Edutopia: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video, Edutopia: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Special Thanks: Quest to Learn, Leah Hirsch and her students

This video was originally produced by Institute of Play, and was made possible through generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

For 12 weeks, sixth graders in my class embark on a learning adventure based on the misadventures of a fictional character called Dr. Smallz. The class is a hands-on, inquiry-based, integrated science and math course. Students get a chance to be scientists, designers, makers and players as they learn all about human body systems, cellular functions, and the ability of the human organism to maintain dynamic equilibrium. The Dr. Smallz Mission is a great example of the type of game-like learning experience that creates a powerful "Need to Know" in students, leaving them hungry to learn more.

Microscopic Message

Who is Dr. Smallz? My students will describe him as if he's an old friend. He's a clumsy, disorganized, well-intentioned medical doctor who decides to diagnose a patient's mystery disease by taking a closer look inside the body. Without the knowledge of his bosses at Shrinkley Labs, he puts himself in their newly-developed shrinking machine (which has not yet been tested on humans), boards a microscopic ship designed to withstand the tough interior conditions of the human body, and rides the air current of an inhalation to get inside his patient's respiratory system. Unfortunately, during the shrinking process, his brain gets a little bit jumbled up, and he experiences amnesia specific to all of his medical vocabulary. He finds my class through an Internet search, and is sure that we'll be able to assist him.

The adventure starts with a "micro-postcard." I begin the trimester teaching my students how to use microscopes, and when they receive samples to analyze, they're under the impression that they will just be looking at a few plant cell samples. But when they switch their microscopes on, they find an encoded message -- microscopic letters and numbers that they decode to find a website address. When I go to that URL and project Dr. Smallz' first communique to the students on my SmartBoard, you can hear a pin drop in the classroom. Jaws are hanging open, and eyes are bright with wonder and amazement.

Students in Leah Hirsch's classroom work on a mission.

Credit: Institute of Play

Leveling Up at Mission Control

In Dr. Smallz’ first dispatch to us, he explains his situation, provides some clues of his whereabouts and sends some photos of the view from his ship’s windows. After a class discussion, my students determine his location, and this is where our Need to Know really comes into play. My students usually agree that he's somewhere in the throat or nasal passage. At this point, I ask them:

  • What body system is this a part of?
  • What do we already know about this body system?
  • What do we need to learn in order to help Dr. Smallz navigate around this body system?
  • What systems connect to it, and where else in the body could he travel to?

From this point onward, they're hooked. The Doctor’s communiques provide clues about the mystery illness his patient is suffering from. In the end, students use the clues to diagnose the patient with Dengue Fever, advise Dr. Smallz on the best treatment, and find him the safest route out of her body (they usually decide to take him through her ear). While my students give Dr. Smallz advice and information on the body, I embed assessment into the narrative, asking them to create films, posters, travel guides, emails, etc.

Students learn about the body by "leveling up" -- as they become experts in one body system, they are able to "unlock" the doctor’s safe passage into the next body system. As the narrative progresses, Dr. Smallz' movements and decisions become increasingly influenced by the advice from my students, allowing them to chart the course of their own learning and serve as mission control for Dr. Smallz' journey. The students are immersed in what they're learning because they develop a sense of empathy for both Dr. Smallz and his patient.

Building Narrative, Inviting Inquiry

The Dr. Smallz Mission is a multi-layered narrative, but the Need to Know is simple -- my students want to learn about the body systems because they want to help this character, and it's fun for them to feel as though they have a hand in shaping the course of the doctor's travels within the body. Creating meaningful Need to Knows not only allows me to engage hard-to-reach learners, but it has also pushed the limits of my creativity in the classroom and kept me engaged as well!

Here are some steps to design a Mission that creates a Need to Know in your classroom:

  1. Start with your standards. Plan backward. Pick out your Common Core standards as well as your content standards, and determine what you want your students to do and how they will be able to show it.
  2. Craft essential questions and enduring understandings to frame your Mission. What kind of inquiry will your students engage in, and what will they remember years after leaving your classroom?
  3. Brainstorm authentic contexts for problem-solving around these essential questions. These could involve a cast of characters, an adventure, or a game that the students play. A good place to start a brainstorm is with a real-life job that uses the content and skills you want to teach. Then craft a story around that job.
  4. Use your narrative to determine what "hats" the students will be wearing, or what role they'll play in the narrative -- detective, designer, researcher, etc. Add additional narrative details that will immerse students in these roles.
  5. Develop a series of learning experiences and assessments that move toward your final goal in a coherent and concrete way.

Designing Your Mission

Institute of Play's Q Curriculum Design Pack has a number of worksheets and resources to help you design your own Mission.

You can even try the Dr. Smallz Mission Pack in your own middle school science classroom.

Edutopia's Made With Play series takes a look at game-like learning principles in action and commercial games in real classrooms -- and offers tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice. Get more resources for game-based learning here.

Videos made possible through generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Made With Play series is a co-production with Institute of Play.

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Mark's picture

Dr. Smallz is a great idea. A lot of children play games on one of their technological devices. Plus, you have integrated many subjects into one project.

Hetal Trivedi's picture

I think we have to grow lots of confidence in our students so its help me out too good yup

pwolf130's picture

Where can I find all of the information to use this in my classroom?

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