Mission US (www.mission-us.org) is a series of innovative role-playing games, available free online, that engage middle school students in U.S. history by putting them in the roles of peers from the past. Produced by THIRTEEN in partnership with the American Social History Project and Electric Funstuff, Mission US is part of a larger initiative by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), under its American History and Civics initiative, and is a featured project of CPB’s “American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen” initiative to combat the nation’s dropout crisis.
GOALS: Mission US was developed to address the pressing need to engage middle school students in social studies and American history in more effective ways. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 17% of eighth graders perform at or above the proficient level in American history. The story for underserved students is even worse. Mission US adapts the most popular emerging technology in young people’s lives – gaming – to immerse them in the drama of our nation’s past.
Each mission is deeply rooted in historical scholarship, tied to national learning standards and accompanied by extensive educator support materials. The overall goals of Mission US are to help students in grades 5-9:
• Learn the story of America and the ways Americans struggled to realize the ideals of liberty and equality.
• Understand the role of ordinary men and women, including young people, in history.
• Develop thinking skills that increase historical understanding and critical thinking.
As students play Mission US, they build their historical knowledge and strengthen critical thinking and problem solving skills such as effective reasoning, systematic thinking, decision making, and effective communication. Through role-play, the games are designed to promote the practice of elements of historical reasoning, which include perspective taking, viewing events in historical context and the relationships among them by considering causality and contingency, and identifying persistent issues across time. These are all practices that can contribute to productive activity in a participatory democracy.
Each game is only one piece of a more comprehensive curriculum developed to support content- and skill-focused history education. When used well, gameplay generates meaningful experiences for a range of students. Teachers can use those experiences as the basis for discussions and opportunities to point to evidence of sound historical thinking or moments where students’ thinking might be anachronistic. Discussions can be based on choices that students made given their understanding and objectives at the moment—potentially a powerful starting point for helping students engage in “critical thinking.” They can consider the differences and similarities between the past and the present moment. They can reflect on others’ motives. And they can think about how situations, broadly defined, can constrain and support thinking and behavior.
Mission 1: “For Crown or Colony?” puts players in the shoes of 14-year-old Nat Wheeler, a printer’s apprentice in 1770 Boston. Interacting with a variety of people, including historical figures like Paul Revere and Phillis Wheatley, players encounter different views on British authority and the Patriot movement. When rising tensions result in the Boston Massacre, they must choose where their loyalties lie.
In Mission 2: “Flight to Freedom,” players take on the role of Lucy, a 14-year-old enslaved on a Kentucky plantation. As they navigate her escape and journey to Ohio, they discover that life in the “free” North is dangerous and difficult. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act brings disaster. Will Lucy ever truly be free? The game helps students learn how enslaved people’s choices – from small acts of resistance to actions that sought to end slavery – affected the lives of individuals, and ultimately the nation.
Mission 3: “A Cheyenne Odyssey” focuses on Westward expansion from the perspective of one Plains Indian tribe. The player is Little Fox, a Northern Cheyenne boy whose life is changed by the encroachment of white settlers, railroad builders, and U.S. military expeditions. As the buffalo herds diminish and the U.S. government enforces the reservation system, players will learn about the persistence of the Cheyenne amid national transformations at the end of the 19th century.
In Mission 4: “The Sidewalks of New York” (slated to launch in 2014), the player is Lena, a young Russian Jew who immigrates to New York City in 1910. Navigating the streets of the Lower East Side, the player learns about the immigrant experience, Progressive Era reforms, factory work and labor conditions, the rise of mass culture, and the evolving role of women in this era. Eventually, Lena finds a job at a garment factory where workers are organizing with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and witnesses the dramatic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.
In Mission 5: “California or Dust!” (slated to launch in 2015), the player steps into the shoes of Ginny and Frank Dunn, 14-year-old twins on a family-owned wheat farm in Texas in the 1930s. Because of debt, falling wheat prices and drought, prospects for survival on the Dunn farm are grim. Frank takes to riding the rails and Ginny must help keep the farm together until, fearing foreclosure, she helps the family migrate to California. Alternating between Ginny and Frank's viewpoints, the player encounters a variety of perspectives on the Depression and the challenges faced by ordinary citizens, as well as organized responses to the Depression, exploitative migrant conditions, and documentation efforts by Farm Security Administration photographers.
EDUCATOR SUPPORT: The Mission US website includes a comprehensive collection of resources and materials for educators including document-based questions (DBQs), a rich collection of primary sources, activities for individual, small group, and whole class implementation, vocabulary builders, standards alignments, writing prompts and visual aids. This robust set of teacher resources helps educators integrate the game effectively into the curriculum and the scope and sequence of their lesson plans. To provide peer-to-peer support, PBS member stations across the country have conducted in-depth educator outreach and professional development in their local markets around the effective integration of Mission US into the classroom and curriculum.
IMPACT: In 2011, Education Development Center (EDC) completed a major research study examining the use of Mission US by 1,118 seventh and eighth grade students in 50 schools across the country. The study found measurable gains in students’ historical knowledge and skills, and yielded positive feedback from teachers. A summary of the study’s key findings is available at cpb.org/features/missionus.
Since launch in September 2010, Mission US has attracted over 600,000 registered users in all fifty states and around the world, including more than 30,000 teachers, with numbers continuing to climb every week. The project has won the prestigious Japan Prize for Educational Media and a Gold Medal at the International Serious Play Conference, while garnering 5-out-of-5-star ratings from Common Sense Media and rave reviews from teachers, students, and education and gaming press.
LOOKING AHEAD: We hope to continue expanding the scope of the Mission US resources to cover more of the American history curriculum and to reach as many students and teachers in as many schools as possible. We are in the process of rebuilding the game engine to enable distribution both online and on tablet devices, which will allow us to reach even more users on multiple platforms.