VIRTUAL SPROUTS: Combatting Pediatric Obesity with Science Education, Gardening, and Gameplay

In February of 2010, the First Lady formed the first-ever federal task force to address the epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S., with key pillars of (1) making healthy foods more affordable and accessible for families and (2) using gardening as a primary vehicle to engage the public in this initiative. Researchers at the University of Southern California received a Science Education Partnership (SEPA) award from the National Institutes of Health to create Virtual Sprouts, a project to investigate the application of game-based interventions to prevent childhood obesity. The primary output of Virtual Sprouts is a touch-based iPad game that allows children and children and families the opportunity to play in a virtual garden and kitchen. The game allows learners to select meals to prepare, plant and tend to crops, harvest them, and prepare them as part of a goal-directed healthy meal. The goal is to positively influence dietary intake and prevent/treat obesity in minority youth through meaningful play. The project brings a novel combination of technology and teaching to bear on pediatric obesity in urban Los Angeles, employs video game techniques (graphics and animation, sound, scoring), a rich underlying narrative, a pedagogical agent, and experiential learning to achieve the aims of the program. An initial evaluation of the system with 180 3rd through 5th graders in Los Angeles showed improved self-efficacy to eat fruit and vegetables, self-efficacy to cook, and self-efficacy to garden, and overall motivation. In this talk, I will describe the design and development of the application, discuss the pedagogical agent (Dottie), summarize the results of the first evaluation, and convey my lessons learned from working on a highly interdisciplinary team.