TracyR96 Sorbet’s primary work in Second Life involves a project called Hungry Decisions. The project was inspired by one of her master’s degree students, and today involves more than one student and another faculty member. The project provides students with the opportunity to see what differences exist in student perceptions of third world countries. Some of the students will experience Hungry Decisions via a “static” web site, while others will experience the concept in Second Life.

TracyR96 Sorbet teaches in the agricultural communications and journalism program at Texas A&M University. The program is basically a journalism program with a specialty in agricultural sciences. Similar programs exist in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Florida, Georgia, and Nebraska. She teaches primarily in a traditional classroom, but once Hungry Decisions is fully functional in Second Life, she will be bringing students in grid. TracyR96 is currently building components into her classes to successfully introduce students into Second Life. TracyR96 also teaches magazine production, photography, and graphic design for print.

Hungry Decisions is TracyR96’s pioneer program for a USDA-CSREES (Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service) grant project that she is leading which will use Second Life to teach crisis communications. Texas Tech teaches a graduate level crisis communications course each fall semester. Crisis communications is the process of planning how to share information in the event of a disaster related situation. Organizations and communities develop crisis communication plans to prepare for working with the media and sharing information with the pubic. The ultimate goal is to determine if virtual worlds can provide students with a better “experience” related to globalization and international work. So many of TracyR96’s students just read case studies or listen to others experiences, but they don’t get to participate in cost-prohibitive international travel. Hungry Decisions provides experiential learning for the international journalist on a budget! The hope is that Hungry Decisions will create a stronger emotional and psychological response for students as compared to video or static case studies. These types of opportunities can also bolster general student interest in traveling abroad.

A “typical” experience for a student first logging into Hungry Decisions is a tree-based simulation. Most students will only go through 2-3 times, faced with various choices, and each choice will have difference consequences. The crisis communication project will involve students throughout the semester. Basically the students will be given some information and they have to choose a role – male or female. Then they are told a portion of their life story, which ends with a choice. That choice is made by touching an object which will teleport them to the next decision. For example, if a student begins in the village, and chooses to leave their community and move to the city, they will be teleported to the city section of the sim. This is where the next part of their experience will begin.

TracyR96’s appreciates the combination of creativity and interactivity that Second Life brings. She can make things happen and let her students experience them without causing world havoc. TracyR96 would love to recreate a “safe” hurricane just for the experience it would provide.

When TracyR96 first came to Second Life, she was just an interested observer for the first 6-8 months. Her university does currently have a program that introduces faculty to Second Life and one of the speakers, Metaphor Voom, teaches a photo class and uses SL as a component of the course. Since TracyR96 also teaches digital photography, she was interested in how she could get involved as well. Thanks to Metaphor introduction, TracyR96 became involved with both Second Life and the Educators Coop.

TracyR96 found acclimating to SL as a teacher to be a very different experience than as an observer. There is an additional pressure on educators to develop the materials needed to make it worthwhile for the students to succeed in Second Life, and it can be quite difficult (and rare) to find the time to do so. She also found her students reluctant to try something new; the initial fear is very real. To overcome this, TracyR96 makes sure her students have a purpose. You can’t just say “hey you need to try this new technology.” People seem to get overwhelmed if they don’t have a reason or goal to accomplish when they first enter SL. For the graduate students, TracyR96 had them research locations they could visit during a presentation, so they were able to search for specific criteria while in Second Life. Another faculty member invested in a scavenger hunt script for his students.

Another concern that TracyR96 has about bringing students into Second Life is that her technology-based students will be turned off slightly with the education component. People today are so used to the 3-D effects and extreme graphical capabilities of games and movies. If Hungry Decisions appears “cartoonish” then the learning experience may be devalued. This is a concern that is shared by TracyR96’s colleagues as well. Either way, TracyR96 is looking forward to the variability in the avatars reflecting her students’ personalities. They will get to show their classmates how they see themselves, which could lead to greater self-confidence in the “classroom” and with assignments. On this topic, TracyR96 and her team are hoping to work with our educational psychology department as we develop instruments for our research.

TracyR96 created her name on an admitted “newbie mistake.” Her first name is Tracy, and ’96 is the year that both she and her husband graduated from Texas A&M. She chose Sorbet in honor of the dairy farm she was raised on.

In “real life,” TracyR96 is Dr. Tracy Rutherford. She holds a BS in Animal Science from Cornell University, an MA in Speech Communication, Rhetoric & Public Affairs from Texas A&M, and a Ph.D. in Agricultural Leadership from Texas A&M.

Hungry Decisions website: