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Kinetic City

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Emilio De Torre

Kinetic City: Mission to Vearth is an affordable, engaging curriculum that approaches a diverse and comprehensive array of science topics. Its activities are adaptable but clearly related to National Science Education Standards. It's crafted to make often-esoteric science topics relevant to students' lives, as well as to expand upon their prior knowledge.

Be prepared to do your homework as an instructor, however: many subjects covered in this curriculum are bound to elicit good questions from students. With the proper preparation, Kinetic City: Mission to Vearth would be a boon to any afterschool science program.
Full Review:
Kinetic City bills itself as "the only afterschool program based entirely on national science learning benchmarks." While this is not necessarily true, that claim sets the pace for these science activities set in a virtual world replete with real-life lessons and challenges. Actual situations are cleverly adapted to a class or club setting, letting youngsters explore, in unique ways, issues of energy consumption, pollution, recycling, mathematical inquiry, geocentrism, evolution, and anatomy. In addition to orthodox scientific terms, Kinetic City uses imaginary words and creatures. Staff and youth alike should embrace the lingo—such as "floperator," "muddles," "Deep Delete," "Vearth," "voltra," and "fragg"—to make the scenarios immersive and believable.

Kinetic City's educational philosophy embodies popular constructivist and multiple-intelligence theories: it is part of the movement currently elevating science instruction to a youth-friendly level. While its "missions" are clearly based on national science benchmarks, the activities themselves appear fun and engaging. They're different enough to appeal to the diverse interests of young people, and they accommodate different learning strategies, using games, model making, problem solving, art, physical activities, and puzzles to introduce science and social concepts.

The curriculum is professionally laid out and clearly explained: each activity contains an introduction, a supply list, instructions, and a debriefing. Activities are grouped by theme or concept into four "missions," each containing an overview and five activities, both on- and off-line.

The majority of the activities and journal writing tasks are to be done away from computers, but a great deal of online set up and additional preparation are required as well. This includes the preliminary set up of explaining the entire Kinetic City: Mission to Vearth concept to the students, creating ID cards, creating a Club Web site, forming teams, and earning Kinetic City Power Points (designed to cleverly disguise the quizzes).

Its strengths aside, I do have some concerns regarding the implementation of Kinetic City: Mission to Vearth in an afterschool setting:
  1. Instructors will need a great deal of prep time. Teachers go through a complex series of steps in order to introduce the program—creating ID cards, designing a Web site, and explaining the Kinetic City story to students, parents, and staff. Many unit tasks also require lengthy setup and explanation before students can get to work. Kinetic City's background plot and accompanying vocabulary are so elaborate that they must be explained and understood well in order to do the program justice. Given the average amount of time that most afterschool centers have, it won't be easy to dedicate the hours needed to do so.
  2. Staff must feel comfortable with the science content. Not all staff in afterschool settings will be comfortable with the volume and specificity of the science concepts involved in these activities. Due to the open-ended nature of youth conversation and exploration, questions are bound to arise. Staff will need to investigate many of the concepts ahead of time, and if they are not equipped to answer a question outright, they will need to be coached on how to approach the problem as a coinvestigator with the student.
  3. Some activities are quite complex. Staff should understand that it may take a while for everyone (themselves included) to understand and accomplish the activities effectively. Prereading and prepracticing activities, strong group management skills, and an ability to modify or adapt problems to suit students' needs are a must prior to implementation.
  4. Staff and youth need to "suspend disbelief." In order for students to embrace this alternate universe as their own, staff must be gifted persuaders and believers. The imaginary settings, vocabulary, characters, and activities in Kinetic City require complete "buy in" from all involved in order to make the program work.
  5. Teachers will need to move between an activity space and a computer lab. Unless the center or club is doing only this activity, teachers may need to coordinate at least two different program areas for effective implementation, as most afterschool centers have separate computer labs that are constantly occupied.
  6. Time management is an issue. Some events appear to be quite long, requiring a great deal of explanation, setup, and "up time" to complete, whereas others appear to be much shorter. You will need to decide how much time to allot for journal writing, computer activities, and setup.
  7. Need for initial staff training. For a program of this depth, variety, and complexity, you might consider a 1 or 2-day training workshop. Staff should learn about the program's design and layout, familiarize themselves with the activities, conduct practice sessions, and understand the support materials and Web site, among other things.