– Traveling through time, talking to animals, and saving the day — they’re all video game staples.

And you’ll find all of them as you also figure out how to save Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota from pollution.

That’s the idea behind Citizen Science, a game that teaches players about lake ecosystems. It’s part of the catalog of Games + Learning + Society, which bills itself as one of the longest standing games-for-learning research centers in the world. Working out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, GLS is part of a growing field that brings together scientists, educators and game designers to augment traditional science education.

Kurt Squire grew up playing, and learning from, video games. Now, as co-director of GLS, he tries to develop games that make learning science a more active process. “I was personally struck by the fact that we have these lakes right in downtown Madison that you can’t really swim in,” he said. That curiosity led to the development of Citizen Science.

In the game, players investigate the causes of pollution at Lake Mendota by traveling through time, collecting evidence and cleaning up the lake. Students can explore interconnected ecosystems and the long-term effects of pollution in a way that can be difficult to observe and measure during a semester, let alone a single field trip.

That’s what Robert Bohanan thinks makes video games effective for teaching science. He consulted with GLS on Citizen Science and is an outreach program manager at UW-Madison’s Summer Science Institute, a college experience program for high school students. He uses the game to simulate lake ecosystems and to reach more students than he can with traditional teaching materials.

Teachers are increasingly embracing video games as tools to expand their curriculum. The relevant question has shifted from whether to how video games should be used in classrooms.

“Some of the students that are the most engaged [by games] are also the students that are often the least engaged otherwise, which is really cool,” Bohanan said.