Shipwrecks and Sea Shanties: Designing a Game to Teach the Great Lakes

Lindy Biller
Field Day Lab
Published in
8 min readNov 21, 2019


When Sarah Gagnon and I arrived at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum on a cold November afternoon, David Gagnon — director at Field Day — hurried out to meet us.

“You need to get as much of this as you can,” he said, ushering Sarah and me into the Riverview Room, where the fellowship event was in full swing. “These people are fantastic.

Who were “these people?” At that particular moment, the speaker was Caitlin Zant, marine archeologist. But that room was so full of brilliant people that David could’ve been talking about anyone. Teachers, marine archeologists, Sea Grant educators, producers from PBS Wisconsin, the museum’s Director of Education. Even a ship captain-turned-performer, who enchanted the group with maritime songs and stories.

We were all there to launch Field Day’s latest teacher fellowship. The goal: create a game about Great Lakes shipwrecks! When it’s finished, this free online game will be played at elementary schools throughout Wisconsin and beyond.

The event included 14 elementary school teachers from across the state. At Field Day, we want to make games that teachers can actually use. That means including teachers in the design process from the beginning and listening to what they care about.

“I’m passionate about place-based learning,” said Kelly Koller, a teacher and learning specialist at Forest Glen Elementary and Suamico Elementary. “We have such a directed curriculum . . . Students don’t have a deep understanding and sense of place about where they live by the Great Lakes.”

As Sarah (creative director at Field Day) pointed out, the shipwrecks game will be the perfect resource to draw kids into that space of curiosity and wonder. For kids in the Midwest, the Great Lakes are part of local history. What better than mysterious sunken ships in deep waters nearby to pique their interest?

Jodi Kardin, a teacher from Augusta Elementary, wants to use games to build deeper inquiry. “Kids get so excited [about games],” she said. “They’re always asking, ‘When do we get to play that game again?’ Now I’m interested in how to create that balance where you’re super excited, but are you getting something meaningful out of it?”

It’s true that not all games are created equal. Plenty of learning games are fun, but don’t align with the curriculum. Other games are too long for a single class period, or cost too much. (FYI: In our opinion, any cost is too much.) Research shows that games are amazing for learning — if they’re good learning games, and if teachers know how to use them. Often, teachers don’t have the support and resources they need to successfully implement games in the classroom.

The teacher fellows are stepping up to address these issues. They provide insight that Field Day’s creative team will rely on as we develop the game. Just as importantly, they’re going back to their schools equipped with new resources and behind-the-scenes knowledge about learning games and — in this case — shipwrecks.

One of our main goals for teacher fellowships is to support and empower great teachers. Judging by the barely contained glee on David’s face, it was going pretty well so far.

The Event Line-Up

Day 1 focused on learning and inspiration. We got to hear from the experts: marine archaeologists, game designers, researchers, and the teachers themselves.

In case you were wondering, Wisconsin’s marine archaeologists are basically superheroes. They scuba dive down to wrecks in the notoriously cold waters of the Great Lakes, sometimes for four hours at a time. Their mission: to piece together the untold stories of shipwrecks and share those stories with the world. They use all kinds of cool methods and tools in their work: underwater sketches and measurements, photos and videos, side-scan sonar, historical artifacts like ship rosters, and more.

Diving deep into marine archaeology with Caitlin Zant, Tori Kiefer, and Tamara Thomsen, facilitated by Jim Mathews.

David and Jim Mathews (Education Director, Field Day) talked about the goal of the fellowship, and David explained the theory behind teaching with games. Anne Moser from the Wisconsin Sea Grant gave a presentation that got the teachers taking measurements and solving the mystery of a real shipwreck. Then we explored the Maritime Museum, taking it all in — historical artifacts, beautiful Wisconsin-made boats, an underwater ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) simulation, and dozens of stories of real shipwrecks.

Day 1 ended with a music performance by Tom Kastle, a ship captain who has sailed the Great Lakes and collected maritime songs from all around the world. This was so valuable for the design team. We love to immerse ourselves in the topic we’re designing for — not only the science, but also cultural practices and art. The game’s music will be inspired by Tom’s sea shanties, which he calls the “work songs of the sea.”

Raising the sail to the tune of “Haul Away Joe” during Tom’s performance! Sea shanties and maritime songs will help inform the game’s music.

The first night ended, for those who were interested, across the snowy parking lot at the hotel bar. For me, this was a perfect example of how much fun it is when you get a bunch of interesting, passionate people together. Only at a Field Day fellowship can I cheer on teachers and researchers playing video games on the bar TV, sing along with a ship captain’s hauntingly beautiful sea shanties, and then turn around and listen to a 3rd grade teacher (Elizabeth Rivera, from Hayes Bilingual in Milwaukee) talk about her passion for using games to inspire her students.

Day 2 was split into two parts: inspiration and design. The teachers played video game demos, learned more about game design, and shared their insights about what kinds of stories and games their kids love.

Then we moved into design time. The group broke out into small teams, with the subject experts and designers rotating through the room. Each team worked together to come up with story and gameplay ideas. As a writer with Field Day, I was floored by the rich, diverse ideas that came out of this brainstorming session.

The teachers shared their ideas with the group and wrote up their favorite game concepts. By the end of the fellowship event, we had dozens of handwritten blueprints and lots of inspiration to bring back to Madison.

Video games: an anchor for learning

We don’t make learning games because it’s fun. (It is fun, but that’s a bonus.) Research shows that games are incredible tools for learning.

“If we can make a game out of a topic,” David said, “then we are going to clearly communicate the complexity and wonder of that topic, and we’re going to allow people to fail in the middle of it, and allow them to be driven by personal motive, and they’ll be able to have a richer, more complex experience.”

Teacher fellows and Field Day designer Eric Lang putting their heads together during design time.

Throughout the event, many of the teachers talked about why they love using games to create rich learning experiences.

Dan Scherbert, a third-grade teacher from Rogers Street Academy in Milwaukee, talked about how well-designed games inspire kids to go deeper. “Then they’ll pick up the books,” Dan said. “Then they’ll research for themselves.”

Joy Aragones, another teacher fellow, was excited about how games can help kids get more invested in a topic. “When kids discover things for themselves, they’ll remember it more than if I tell them the same thing,” said Joy, “and they’ll hold onto it longer.”

It takes great teachers to create opportunities for the kind of self-led discovery that Joy is talking about. Games are an awesome way to make this happen.

Why shipwrecks?

It might seem strange to make a game about shipwrecks. But shipwrecks — along with shipbuilding and sea transportation — are a rich part of Wisconsin history.

Getting inspired inside the USS Cobia, a WWII era submarine docked right outside the museum.

“We’re right across the street from Lake Michigan,” said Joy, who teaches at the Prairie School in Racine. “While I don’t have immediate access to [the lake], I’m trying to find ways to incorporate that into what I do every day . . . I want to see kids making connections with where they live.”

The game will use shipwrecks to help kids dive into maritime history — even if they don’t live near the lakes. Plus, players will get to learn about the practices of marine archaeology, a career that most kids — and many adults — have never heard of.

Caitlin Zant, one of the marine archaeologists who spoke at the event, didn’t discover until college that she could make a career out of her love of the lakes and their history.

“It was my childhood obsession,” she said. “I was always fascinated by maritime history, but never knew it was something I could do professionally. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized it was something I could turn into a career.”

Tori Kiefer, another marine archeologist at the event, said she’s excited about how the game will reach kids who might never have been exposed to maritime history.

“With this game, we can reach everyone in the state,” Tori said. “Usually we visit coastal communities, but it’s harder for us to be able to visit inland locations. We’re trying to reach audiences that are new to us . . . We believe this game is a good way to do that.”

Teacher fellows become leaders

The Fantastic 14: all our awesome teacher fellows!

At the end of the event, David invited the teachers to share a highlight, something they’ll bring back with them. Their words reminded us why we love hosting teacher fellowships, and why this work matters.

“I am blown away altogether,” Joy Aragones said. “I have so much to walk back into my classroom with. I loved listening to Caitlin and Tori. Growing up, I knew you could be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher. Those were the choices. I feel like there’s so many cool things out there kids can do, and I had no idea. It’s just one more thing to bring back to [my students] and say, ‘Look at the awesome opportunities.’”

Juliana Kelly, a teacher at Morgandale Elementary in Milwaukee, loved having the opportunity to step outside of the classroom. “Connecting with other adults, especially experts in their fields, is very invigorating and inspiring . . . This experience has re-ignited my passion for teaching.”

This is what teacher fellowships are about: equipping great teachers to go back to their communities, become leaders, and help their students discover what’s possible.