Profile: Rael's amazing Flight to Freedom
This week, Bowdoin Professor Patrick Rael will unveil a unique new resource
for students and teachers hoping to learn more about slavery in the pre-Civil
War South. Rael's Flight
to Freedom, the result of two years of collaboration with the Educational
Technolgy Center, is a web-based game that allows players to struggle
first-hand with the challenges that fugitive African-Americans faced on
their perilous journey towards freedom.
"[Professor Rael] has combined two things in this project in a way
they haven't been before," said English Professor and ETC Director
Peter Schilling. "One is the theory of history that to learn a type
of culture you have to learn its stories, and the other is the theory
of learning that you learn best when you have to solve problems rather
than learn information passively."
Flight to Freedom allows the player to experience the stories of those
who lived them. The database of over 750 entries created for the project
was designed around the autobiographies and personal narratives of enslaved
African-Americans who fled bondage in the south. Users are in fact able
to "play" the role of famous narrative authors that Rael and
his assistants studied, including Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman.
In the game, the player is presented with a scenario inspired by the
contemporary, antebellum publications. The turn consists of the player
choosing one out of several possible actions. For example, after having
just been beaten after capture, should the player rest to recover strength
or make another attempt at escape?
After the player decides on a course of action, the computer randomly
selects an event entry from within certain parameters in the database.
The ultimate object is to rescue your family members enslaved in the south
and, then, to escape with them to Canada and freedom.
When asked about the inspiration for this project, Rael explained that
he has been interested in educational simulation ever since graduate school.
"Our students are growing up in a world of ever expanding media that
constantly vie for their attention," he said. "It is crucial
that educators take advantage of new technologies in order to both hold
students attention and to address their wide variety of learning styles."
"Also," he admitted with a grin, "I like games."
Still, historical simulations are much different than conventional computer
games. As Rael said, they "challenge users to confront the past in
a way that is fundamentally different from books and lectures. By establishing
parameters for behavior and systems for incentives and rewards, simulations
permit users to experience the problems and conflicts that motivated those
in the past.
Originally imagining that Flight to Freedom would end up as a board game,
the decision to turn it into a web-based simulation was reached in discussions
between Rael, Schilling, and other members of ETC because of a computer's
ability to make the in-game situations more specific and realistic. "A
computer can keep track of various circumstances and can respond to various
situations," said Rael. For example, certain events will only occur
to women and others only in specific cities.
Rael and a group of student assistants assembled the database by researching
historical documents. "Students did this work, and it was real historical
work," Rael said. "They had to search documents, edit, and write
Once the database had been assembled, a group of ETC web-designers and
programmers under project head Kurt Greenstone undertook the task of creating
the software aspect. Between research, writing and programming, well over
1,000 man-hours have been spent on the project so far, a number that will
increase as Rael's future students continue to add additional entries
to the game database.
"Without the ETC we couldn't possible have done this," Rael
said. "The office is a model for how academics can translate their
ideas into educational technology."
Each year, Schilling explained, the office selects three faculty proposals
and then works with professors and students to merge academics and technology.
Flight to Freedom is one of many projects the ETC is currently working
on. Others include 'Zen Garden,' and a tool that will tailor the Introductory
Biology curriculum to a student's personal learning preferences.
Rael hopes that his work will create excitement about using interactive
methods to learn about the past. "So far, technology has not changed
the way we learn about the past. The Internet is just used as an interesting
way of conveying information in the way it always has been. We're trying
to explore the interactivity of the web and the way we can learn from
Rael also intends for Flight to Freedom to serve as a nexus to inspire
further investigations about African-American life by students, educators,
If nothing else, the vivid images and stories within which the game enmeshes
the player will bring color and life to a crucial aspect of our nation's