Chicago Reflections on I Dig Zambia!

IDZ Chicago!
I came on as the Chicago facilitator for I Dig Zambia after hearing so much about the I Dig Tanzania program. When I first heard about I Dig Tanzania I was elated. Kids that get to virtually dig for fossils while interacting with paleontologists on an actual dig?!? Why wasn’t this happening when I was a kid! Looking at it through my educator glasses I could instantly see that the possibilities to engage kids with science were endless. I was more than excited to facilitate for this program.

The science activities for I Dig Zambia were similar to those used in I Dig Tanzania. In addition we were able to add more cultural activities. We planned to work with a school/students in Zambia as a way for our teens to learn more about Zambian life and culture. This was an excellent opportunity for our teens to learn about the country they were virtually working in and see that science is never done in a bubble. On a personal note, I am always very frustrated with Americans’ general lack of knowledge with the rest of the world, and any opportunity to learn about another country is an opportunity that should not be passed up. I felt that we had a very robust curriculum planned, and was excited for camp to start. I had little to no experience in 2nd Life and that did worry me a bit, but I felt confident that we could over come any difficulties.

The first thing that surprised me where the type of problems we had with 2nd Life. I was expecting to have more problems with moving, IM’ing, and building, but with the help of the 2nd Life experts at hand both myself and the teens picked up the necessary skills relatively easily. The problems arose with how intense 2nd Life is on computers and connections. The first few days were wrought with system failures and computers crashing. Add in the difficulty in finding top-of-the-line computers that are required to run 2nd Life, and you want to scream. Don't get me wrong, 2nd Life is amazing and the activities were great (when 2nd Life worked), but I sometimes found myself wishing we were in a world that was easier to run. This made me very happy that we had several off-line activities planned!

The teens in Chicago were from different schools, different backgrounds, different races, different socioeconomic levels, and lived in cities up to 30 miles away from one another. It was wonderful having such a diverse bunch, and I’m sure most of them would have never interacted with each other. Needless to say they were very shy the first few days of camp. 2nd Life proved to be an excellent way to start to break down these barriers. When you are in 2nd Life you are a “silly” avatar, there is no race or class associated with you. The first week of camp the Chicago teens seemed much more comfortable typing and IM’ing through their avatars than speaking in person. However, it was also important to have the off-line real world activities, because those activities seemed to really bring many of the teens out of their shells and solidify their relationships. In the end I think it was the mix of the 2nd Life and real world activities that brought this varied bunch together.

Communication with the New York teens, the scientists, and the Zambian youth was also slower than I had expected. Though looking back it was slower for obvious reasons (and I am a very impatient person). Chatting and IM’ing with the New York teens was minimal at first, but steadily increased as the camp went on, and finished in a frenzied Skype call between the two groups. I think the slow start was because they were missing that real world interaction. While all the kids really enjoyed working with the New York teens, I wonder if an earlier Skype call or a chance to meet would have made the experience richer.

The Chicago teens were also very shy to ask questions to the scientists during our first call, but by our last call we were having a good conversation. For this I think the teens needed to get over the content “hump”. The first time Ken said the word “synapsid” the teens had a look on their face as if to say “who is this crazy man and why does he like snapping so much?” But after completing the activities, watching the videos from the scientists in the field, and going on a behind-the-scenes paleontology tour, the teens were more than comfortable with synapsids, tertrapods, and, dare I say, dicynodonts! That is when the conversations between the scientists and the teens really became productive and interesting. It wasn’t that they were 100% comfortable with the material, but it seemed like the teens had a better idea of who these people were and what they were doing.

One aspect that was slightly disappointing to me was the interactions with the Zambian teens. We had grand plans for video blogs and exchanges between the US and Zambian groups, but technology got in the way. We had major technical difficulties with the satellite terminals that hindered our exchanges. In the end we used letters and pictures as a way to communicate with one another. The teens absolute loved the letters, felt like they learned much about Zambian life, and overall it was a good exchange. Realistically you need much more time than 2 weeks for kids in different continents to have the robust exchange we were looking for. Saying that, most of our activities could have easily been done in 4 hours instead of 45 minutes! I think that this just shows the richness and potential of the I Dig program and how it would really benefit from being a quarter or semester long program.

I found I Dig Zambia to be utterly exciting and exhausting, and I am looking forward to its continuation!