More than 300 Hamburg schoolchildren aged between 13 and 18 took on the roles of politicians, scientists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, farmers and consumers to discuss the different aspects of GM foods over a three-week period – all in an online forum. "The project has been a resounding success. Biotalk shows how a large group of schoolchildren can be motivated to discuss at length and at a fairly high level such a difficult topic like GM technology", is how Josef Wehner, an expert in media studies at the Fraunhofer Institute for Autonomous Intelligent Systems AIS in Sankt Augustin sums it up. Together with biologists and educationalists from the University of Hamburg, sociologists from TuTech Innovation GmbH in Hamburg-Harburg and colleagues from the AIS, he devised the discussion forum as part of the project funded by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research. Perhaps the most striking aspect is that many of the registered participants seemed hooked on the issue virtually throughout the entire online phase, and did so not during but outside normal school hours: The bulk of the 3500 articles were written after school. And more than 22,000 articles were downloaded outside school hours. Josef Wehner attributes the commitment of many participants essentially to one factor, which tends to be sadly neglected in other online forums: the fun factor. To motivate the schoolchildren to look seriously at an issue like genetic engineering, the scientists put together an interesting mix of information and entertainment: the participants built up their knowledge, collecting points along the way by answering quiz questions, putting forward convincing arguments or writing stories, all to win one of the prizes up for grabs. "The prizes are not the be-all and end-all though", says Josef Wehner. "What is more important is that the participants took on different roles and experimented with those roles. In this way, these young people got a handle on a difficult issue through role-play. It might have also motivated the schoolchildren to get involved in the cut and thrust of the debate. Suddenly learning becomes fun." The AIS scientists also intend to use this principle to design future online forums for companies, too, such as in a forum that would encourage employees to discuss important structural or strategic questions.
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