George Mason High School and the City of Falls Church have teamed up with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to use a virtual world to solve real-life problems.
Dr. Peter Mecca and Jamie Lahy’s Biology II/Ecology classes and City of Falls Church Civil Engineer Jason Widstrom have been involved in the development of Stormwater Sentries, a simulation game recently released on Facebook to coincide with this year’s Earth Day.
The game was designed to be used as an outreach tool for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, a nonprofit conservation group focused on water quality that works throughout the bay’s watershed.
At a game launch event last Thursday at the school, Nissa Dean, director of the Virginia office of Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, explained that her group seeks ways to engage both youths and adults on the issue of water quality. She said that her group discussed with its partners in the City of Falls Church how a game might be used to show players how their actions – in the game and, by extension, in the real world – have an impact on water quality. Two years and $50,000 later, with the help of the engineering firm Timmons Group and the game development studio SRRN Games, Stormwater Sentries became a reality – a virtual reality. The game was released on April 10, allowing not just the select Mason test group but all Facebook users to play.
Stormwater Sentries is similar to FarmVille and other games played on the social media site. When playing, you’re in charge of your own little digital town. You can dispose of litter, water plants, and – after buying the appropriate scooper – pick up after neighborhood pets. Your goal is to minimize stormwater runoff and water pollution.
You can install rain barrels near the downspouts of your houses to catch water, and later use that water for tending to plants, to decrease stormwater runoff. You can install a rain garden full of plants to soak up rainwater and filter it, resulting in less pollution. You can swap out paved walkways for pervious pavers that let the once covered ground absorb water. In-game challenges guide you through making eco-friendly changes to your neighborhood.
“There’s a real-world problem, and we’re looking for solutions to that,” Widstrom said. Widstrom explained that, as a stormwater engineer for the City, his task is to handle the logistics of removing stormwater from the City, but also to educate the public so that citizens can help in the effort to reduce pollution and manage stormwater runoff. He told students that many of the changes they’ve made in the game, if applied to their homes in the City, could earn their parents credits on their Stormwater Utility Fee.
After hearing from Widstrom and a panel of the game’s creators, the Mason students were able to offer feedback based on their experience playing the game. Students said they felt the game reflected what they’ve learned about stormwater mitigation. Issues related to water pollution are discussed in depth in the classes, Mecca says, and the school itself uses rain barrels and rain gardens like those featured in the game.
Mecca believes that the game is a good supplemental tool to help students review their classroom study of stormwater management, and he hopes that the students will take the strategies in the game home to put them into practice.