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

Veterans of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium are making a new piece of educational software called “Re@l Experiences at Life.”

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.