WhyReef is a partnership between BioSynC, the Education Department at the Field Museum of Natural History and Numedeon, Inc.


WhyReef, reef.whyville.net is a simulated coral reef in the virtual world of Whyville.net, developed by the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago, IL) and Numedeon, Inc., (Pasadena, CA) which is targeted towards youth ages 8-16. Within WhyReef, players are able to “dive” on two reefs, count and identify 50 different coral reef species, play games to learn who-eats-whom, test ideas about healthy and sick reefs using a simulation, and chat with a scientist. WhyReef launched on March 30, 2009 and in the first 10 months of existence had more than 140,000 unique users.

Over the course of the WhyReef project, the simulated reefs were damaged by two catastrophic events: an ecosystem collapse caused by the overfishing of top predators on the reef, and an ecosystem collapse initiated by coral bleaching. When the reef was at its most degraded, we launched the "Save the Reef" activities, asking Whyvillians to identify the cause of the catastrophe and empowering them to affect change.

WhyReef is designed around the education mission of the Field Museum, leveraging the strengths of the Museum's innovative collection and research programs on coral reefs. The charismatic interconnectedness of a reef ecosystem serves as an ideal platform for the four original program and learning goals dedicated to increasing awareness of conservation biology, ecosystem ecology, stewardship and management, and science literacy. WhyReef allows players to be "citizen scientists" and also introduces the tools, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, necessary to understand the consequences of biodiversity loss.

Preliminary evaluations from the data collected show that WhyReef was overwhelmingly successful in making positive affective and stewardship changes among Whyvillians toward coral reefs. It is apparent that players were able to participate in the scientific process and actively experience coral reef biology and ecology. This topic is explored more deeply in our Worked Example: How Scientific Accuracy in Game Design Stimulates Scientific Inquiry. A highlight for this project were the perturbations and we observed a group of highly motivated interest- driven Whyvillians take up the cause of the sick reef with great fervor, placing the cause of the sick reef over their own personal interests.

To reach another goal of understanding the link between the virtual and real worlds we established the WhyReef Kid Advisory Council (KAC), a face-to-face program of exploring museum collections and the virtual reef, held at the Field Museum. From the KAC we observed and learned how kids acquire content knowledge in virtual worlds and how that content is supplemented by real specimens and experiences or other digital skills.

For more information and resources such as instructional videos, educator guides and coloring books, please visit the Field Museum's WhyReef page.

News, Presentations & Publications from WhyReef

WhyReef - Serious Fun


Conservation Connection, an extension of the WhyReef program, engaged 6 teens in Chicago, 12 teens in Suva, Fiji, and middle and high school students from across the country in the stewardship of Fijian coral reefs through direct involvement in the scientific process. Via game play in WhyReef participants gained actionable knowledge in reef biology and ecology. Participants used vetted content from the EOL as a primary resource to exchange blogs, photo essays, and videos on the social network FijiReef to address challenges in coral reef ecology and conservation. All challenges and activities are supplemented by direct contact with marine biologists and conservation scientists from The Field Museum, Wildlife Conservation Society Fiji Country Program and Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area.

All participants collaborated together to create conservation plans for Fijian reefs. These included an article on overfishing published to the Fiji Times, a letter to the editor for the Fiji Times on the impact of large fishing vessels on coral reefs in Suva Harbor, and a video PSA on the dangers of pollution for coral reefs and the fishing industry. Visit FijiReef, fijireef.ning.com, Conservation Connection’s digital hub to and the Field Museum's Conservation Connection page to learn more about the program.

Watch the student-created public service announcement on pollution!

News & Presentations from Conservation Connection

Conservation Connection: From the West Side to the West Pacific

Conservation Connection Activity Guide1.57 MB
EOL Conservation Connection Activity Guide1.57 MB