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Almost 50 years ago, Oregon Trail revolutionized educational software. Can the game’s creators do it again?

MECC

Conceived for a class at a public school in Minneapolis, “Oregon Trail,” is among the most popular educational computer games of all time. It loaded students in virtual covered wagons and sent them from Missouri to Oregon in a simulation of 19th-century westward expansion, contending with broken wagon axles, cholera, snake bites and river crossings along the way.

In the years since, the game has been elevated to cult status: versions of it have been preserved for play online, and it’s not hard to find t-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with pixelated oxen and nostalgic phrases like “you have died of dysentery.”

Now, some of the minds behind it are circling the wagons again. Not because they’re under attack, but because they’re working on a new piece of educational software they think can replicate Oregon Trail’s success.

STEM focus

Can the team that made it strike gold twice?

They think so. Veterans of MECC, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, are making a new piece of educational software company called “Re@l Experiences at Life,” which aims to introduce students to science, technology, engineering and math concepts and careers through a web portal on computers, tablets and even cell phones.

What it is, or will be, once it’s fully up and running, is a web portal with different units, focusing on real-life STEM study areas, from forensics to vehicle traffic flow and invasive species. Each unit will include a classroom learning aspect — reading materials, videos and slideshows, a field experience piece, which can be done virtually or in-person, and a real life piece, which involves watching a webcast or video chatting with a local professional in the given field.

A unit on water quality, for example, would teach kids concepts like pollution and ecosystems. Then, it would give them the tools to test water — either virtually using kits through the portal, or out in the field in real life, with built-in geographic information systems. And finally, students would be connected with someone in a career related to water quality, such as a national expert or an employee of their state’s department of natural resources, to learn about careers in water quality.

The curriculum is designed to align with district, state and federal standards.

The idea, said Paul Gullickson, the president and CEO of Re@l who formerly worked at MECC, is “to help students get excited about careers and keep people employed in the U.S.”

“Re@l Experiences at Life” aims to introduce students to science, technology, engineering and math concepts and careers through a web portal on computers, tablets and even cell phones.

Re@l conducted tests of the concept in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and plans to launch after it finishes raising a $500,000 round of funding, mainly from angel investors. They hope to have the product in schools by the first quarter of next year.

In analyzing the competition, Gullickson said, he’s found much of the STEM-focused education technology concentrates in one area, like coding or robotics. Few are focused on careers.

“We don’t see much in the way of competition at all,” he said.

A blockbuster

In some ways, they say, their strategy mimics the tack they took with Oregon Trail. 

Oregon Trail was first conceptualized by Don Rawitsch, a then-Carleton College student and student teacher at a North Minneapolis school, as a board game for teaching students about westward expansion. Realizing the game was prime for coding, his roommates, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger, helped him write a program so his classroom could play it on a teletype machine, wheeled into their classroom, according to a City Pages oral history of the game. It was a big hit.

Rawitsch deleted the code for Oregon Trail from the school’s computers at the end of the semester, but resuscitated it, retyping lines of code from a printed copy, when he was hired at MECC. First, Oregon Trail was distributed to schools in Minnesota and over time, nationally.

MECC

Now in his fifth decade in educational technology, Rawitsch, the executive vice president of product development at Re@l, says the game’s popularity is attributable to the way it was structured.

In Oregon Trail’s heyday, there weren't a ton of educational computer games, period. But even rarer was a game that put kids in the middle of the action — deciding how much food to bring along, what kind of rations to distribute to the wagon party and when to hunt — allowing them to make decisions and learn from the experience.

“They don’t want an adult feeding them all this information. They’ll get it themselves. That was a big part of Oregon Trail’s popularity,” Rawitsch said.

Rawitsch and co. are looking to replicate that interactivity with Re@l. Teachers will help walk their students through the different learning modules, but they’ll be more of a “guide on the side” than “sage on stage,” Gullickson said.

That’s not the only aspect of “Oregon Trail” the team is looking to recreate in their new venture.

Dale LaFrenz and Paul Gullickson
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
MECC’s former CEO and the chairman of Re@l’s board, Dale LaFrenz, and president and CEO of Re@l, Paul Gullickson.

Investors can be hesitant to put money into school technology, Dale LaFrenz, MECC’s former CEO and the chairman of Re@l’s board, said: schools may be slow to buy, and there’s so many of them: more than 13,000 school districts across the U.S. and many times that schools and teachers.

“That’s true, but we know how to work around that, we’ve done it before,” LaFrenz said.

MECC’s products reached districts through regional education service agencies, centers that provide services like training and technology to multiple school districts. These centers, which number around 550, LaFrenz said, will again be the distribution target for Re@l.

A changed market

Of course, a lot has changed since the ‘80s and ‘90s, when MECC’s Oregon Trail took off. Then, schools that wanted to bring technology into the classroom had limited options for doing so. There were three big players in educational computing industry then, LaFrenz said: MECC, the Learning Company (with games like “Reader Rabbit”) and Broderbund (“Carmen Sandiego”). Computers were less ubiquitous and mobile devices were unheard of.

The market is more cluttered today, said Sean Smith, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies technology in education. Facing a changing industry, traditional textbook companies are clamoring to digitize and supplement their offerings with technology. At the same time, the Internet has democratized technology, making it easier and cheaper for anyone to create or download a learning app.

MECC

Educators gravitate toward technology that is easy for students to use, aligns with the education standards teachers are expected to teach, and that are fun and educational for a broad range of students — not just the most academically advanced, or the students who are struggling to read, Smith said.

The Re@l team believes their new product will fit that bill. And as they pitch their product to investors, being associated with the legendary Oregon Trail doesn’t hurt.

“That’s the start of the conversation many times,” Gullickson said.

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Comments (12)

The really important questions

…in virtually any STEM field are not, after all, technical or mathematical. That’s not to denigrate technical and mathematical knowledge, which is, after all, vital to almost any sort of progress in an industrial society. However, the tendency among STEM advocates that I’ve encountered, especially those who, like yours truly, have in interest in seeing female students encouraged to enter those fields, is to focus rather narrowly on the purely technical issues. The more important question, I’d argue, in almost any STEM field, is a fairly simple one: “To what end?”

That is, how will this chemical process be used? How will this mathematical equation be applied in the real world? How will the new and improved steel you’re developing be used? Mostly, I see those kinds of questions as philosophical and value-laden, and strictly speaking, there’s nothing in math or science to address them. To use the old-fashioned term, they’re “social studies” questions, and of vast importance in any and every technical and/or scientific field, though I rarely see that perspective addressed in books and articles examining STEM education. The failure to include that perspective in much of STEM education is a glaring and serious flaw in what ought to be a widely-used approach. Science cannot be divorced from ethics.

As an aside, I’m a charter member of the Oregon-California Trails Association (www.octa-trails.org), and have retraced the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon three times by automobile. When I was teaching American history and American Studies, I was inclined, when I first encountered Oregon Trail as a computer game, to dismiss it out of hand, but once I’d played it a time or three (and ignoring the tendency to focus on how many buffalo or antelope one managed to shoot in the arcade scenes), I thought it remarkably accurate in assessing the risks of 19th century wagon train travel across the continent. The developers did their homework. Perhaps they’ve done their homework on this latest venture, as well.

That is such an excellent

That is such an excellent point. The ever-present debate between the IT leadership I recruit for is between the "can they do the work?" bunch and "can they understand why?" bunch. The latter bunch believe, not entirely incorrectly, that those with 4-year computer science degrees are more likely to have that qualification. Of course, that leaves out a significant hiring pool, and chances at diversifying our workforce narrow incredibly with this perspective.

Engineering vs science

"To what end" is a driving issue for engineers. We use science and math as tools to create things, not to simply understand principles. As such, economics, ethics, and philosophy often enter the picture. Can we build it and make a profit? Is it safe? Will it make the world a better place? These are key differences between engineering and pure science and math.

Bought an Apple ii in 1979. Oregon Trail was a favorite. Two sons (9 and 6) took to the Apple like ducks to water, and Mom and Dad had fun too. Best $5000 (in today's dollars) we ever spent. Almost 40 years later, both sons are in high-tech related careers.

As a retired engineer, I'm delighted to see more women enter the field. (Would have loved it ever more 50 years ago - the engineering campus often felt like a monastery.) Very happy to see a granddaughter showing dangerous signs of becoming an engineer. Thanks MECC for all that you have done!

Unrealistic View

I enjoyed this look back on a significant part of educational computing history. But perhaps those low res graphics images may give people an unrealistic idea of the early versions of Oregon Trail. The versions I first encountered as a student, and then as a teacher, were all in upper case text, on a 110 baud teletype machine, via acoustic coupler. The images in this article are probably a couple decades advanced from that - still on the primitive end of the exponential curve of tech growth. Still, even that was revolutionary!

Memories from the early years

I will never forget demoing the teletype version of Oregon Trail to some parents of fourth graders at a back to school night. When their kids said they wanted to eat "moderately" the parents were stunned. This wasn't a concept they thought their kids could understand. I hope these new efforts are equally successful in impacting kids' thinking.

And if I recall correctly, the concept of a pond and ecosystem understanding was another very successful MECC software product. I can't recall the name but I also showed this product to parents and teachers frequently while a staff member at TIES,

Not a Pond

It was Odell Lake, as I recall...

The first place I ever

The first place I ever learned what "chum" was!

Always

Pick the Mackinaw Trout, and watch out for otters...what can I say, child of the 80's.

Oregon Trail

MECC also did Lunar Greenhouse which, like Odell Lake, put the student in the middle of the action by doing little experiments and deciding what to grow. My students loved it; so did their teacher as an introduction to the scientific method. MECC stuff, plus David Macaulay's "the Way things Work" software, were the bundles that introduced students to computer assisted learning back in the "good old days" in my 5th grade classroom!

Never never ever

ford the rivers. Always caulk the wagon and float across. And don't pay the $5 toll for a bridge either. I carry these lessons with me to this day, twenty years later.

Thank You

Appreciate the comment chain and the lenses brought to bear through the comments.

Dale and Paul - glad to see where development has taken RE@L over the last four+ years!

Oregon Trail Keeps On Trekking

It's incredible how many students, teachers, and even parents played this intriguing game that was not only fun, but it was formative, too. Kids learned how important planning was, and it didn't make sense to spend too much on bullets, or spring was not a good time to ford a roaring stream.

They actually learned how to make better conclusions so they could win more games and make the trek all the way to Oregon. They also learned that even if you did everything wisely, you could still die of dysentery. That's life and that's real learning. Congrats to the team at RE@L here in MN for keeping this story alive. The K12 world needs more such games of learning.

Can't wait for the sequel!