"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." - Mark Twain
Part social networking site, part edutisement, Whyville is somewhat of an anomaly in the growing field of kid-oriented online communities. Proclaimed the nation's 10th largest city in 2004, Whyville blends entertainment, advertising and fun, drawing so-called "tweeners" by the millions. And although its growing list of sponsors includes commercial entities like Toyota's Scion division and Sun Microsystems, its largest contributors are educational groups like NASA, The University of Texas and the Getty Museum.
"It's almost like PBS meets Neopets if you will," says Jay Goss, Chief Operating Officer of Whyville. "If you go to the museum of Whyville, you're not learning superficially about art. It's actually an entire virtual museum that we put together with the Getty Museum, the real Getty Museum."
What sets Whyville apart is not what it teaches kids about the world around them, but how it teaches them. Whyville takes a hands-on approach, introducing kids to the science they take for granted.
"If you decide that you want to eat lunch at the Whyville cafeteria," explains Goss, "we actually keep track of your calories, nutrients and macronutrients, run it through an algorithm together with a nutritionist dietician advisory committee from the University of Texas and we give you disease if your diet is unhealthy. So a good example in Whyville is if you don't get enough vitamin C for a few days in a row, we actually give you scurvy."
Secondary school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose. In effect, we have a cafeteria style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses. - A Nation at Risk
"The company was founded by a bunch of scientists at Cal Tech," says Goss. "What motivated these scientists was not any kind of commercial notoriety or even simply being a good educational site, but what motivated them was really the science crisis in this country.
"It turns out when you look at our kindergartners up through fifth grade and you look at the data and you compare our kids to the rest of the industrialized world, and our kids are doing just fine, and then ... our kids just fall off the chart. And if you look at that data a little more closely, where we're falling off most violently ... is in math and science."
Whyville isn't the only organization concerned about the growing apathy among America's schoolchildren for science and mathematics, nor is it the first time the science crisis has reared its ugly head in America's schools.
In 1981, then Secretary of Education T. H. Bell created the National Commission on Excellence to determine the state of America's educational system. Their conclusions, published in the groundbreaking 1983 report "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform," were terrifying.
The commission discovered that standardized test scores had been steadily declining for almost 20 years, over 10 percent of children entering adulthood were functionally illiterate and the science achievement test scores of graduating high school seniors had been plummeting steadily since the 1970s.
"Our Nation is at risk," the Commission concluded. "The United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."
The report propelled the nation into action. A new wave of science and space initiatives were launched by the department of education and NASA sent teachers into space. The result? Test scores improved, dropout rates declined and more students left the public education system with the ability to read, write and 'rithmetic.
Twenty years later, the founders of Whyville believe we're in need of another renaissance. Founded in 1999, Whyville now boasts nearly 2 million users - most between the ages of 8 and 15, the so-called "tweeners." One of their primary sponsors is NASA.