The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has helped create an online game to teach environmental lessons to young students.
As part of its educational outreach, the institution has directed $25,000 in funding to sponsor a simulated ecological crisis called "Red Tides" on Whyville.net, an educational virtual world for tweens; kids signed up as Whyville members are asked to avert the crisis.
Since the Red Tides challenge went live late last month, more than 25,000 users have visited Whyville's virtual lagoon looking for clues, according to Numedeon Inc., the California company that created Whyville.net.
As algae blooms threaten the coastal ecosystem of Whyville, concerned Whyvillians must visit the virtual plankton laboratory in the Whyville Oceanographic Institution to learn more.
"Kids have to figure out how to fix the problem," Numedeon chief executive James Bower said. "They learn that planting grasses near the shore of the lagoon can help."
"Through this medium, we have the opportunity to teach millions about the importance of coastal ocean and the process of scientific inquiry," Woods Hole associate scientist Sonya Dyhrman added.
Dyhrman said she was drawn to Whyville partly because of its popularity with girls.
According to Bower, challenges posed on Whyville.net encourage cooperative problem solving, something girls between 8 and 15 relish.
How did Woods Hole connect with a California company? Earlier in his career, Bower studied squid synapses at Woods Hole as a computational neurobiologist and he regularly returns to the institution.
The lesson that the Red Tides exercise hopes to impart, he said, is that "there are environmental consequences to habitation by humans even in a virtual world."
(By Chris Reidy, Globe staff)