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Science Sleuths, volumes 1 and 2

What It Is top

Videodiscovery's Science Sleuths, volumes 1 and 2, is a pair of CD-ROM discs (sold as two independent products) each of which contains six semi-independent levels of two different mysteries. Each level shares a common scenario - some blobs of black gunk washed up on a beach, and you have to decide what it is and if the beach should be closed, or some picnickers got sick, and you have to figure out why they got sick and if they will recover - but each level has a different answer, and 'higher' levels, while not really much harder, have more material for you to sort through. Some of the materials you are given to evaluate are videos of witnesses' wrong and/or misleading testimony, while much of the other materials is irrelevant: your job is to sift the evidence, then form and test a hypothesis. Once you are convinced that you know what happened, you present your case to the Head Sleuth, who will ask a series of questions about the case and about your reasoning.

Overall Evaluation top

Science Sleuths has gotten quite a collection of rave reviews. Given the often abysmal quality of most 'educational' software - and particularly science software - perhaps this is not too surprising. Science Sleuths is neither a video game sprinkled with factoids here and there, nor is it a collection of trivia questions shabbily dressed up with cut-rate surfer d00d animation. Rather, success in Science Sleuths requires something rather like science: observe, ponder, propose, and test. While you may learn a few facts while playing, the most important thing you will learn is the scientific method. This is, of course, as it should be and so rarely is.

It's not surprising, then, that so many people like Science Sleuths at first glance. However, with even slightly extended use - say, doing two or three levels of one of the mysteries - the program begins to seem shallow. Rather than making the problems harder, Videodiscovery just throws more distractions in your way. However, somehow the solution algorithm for each puzzle remains the same: Lawnmowers blowing up? Sample the air around the sprinklers and/or gopher holes and find out what explosive gas it contains. People getting sick at a picnic? Compare the picnic lists and hospital admission lists to find out what the sick people had in common.

Somewhat similarly, while Science Sleuths offers a nice selection of simulated science tools from tape measures and magnifying glasses to mass spectrograms and chromatographs, you can't use each tool on each piece of evidence - you can only use them where someone has programmed (or, at least, drawn) a result for the test. While the availability of tests doesn't exactly lead you by the nose towards a solution - there are plenty of opportunities to do irrelevant or pointless tests - if you have come to a hypothesis that no one at Videodiscovery anticipated, you may find that there is no way to do the tests that would disprove your hypothesis. You are then forced to either conclude that you must be wrong because the program won't let you test your hypothesis or to go present your hypothesis to the Chief Sleuth and be told that you're wrong - neither of which is a particularly scientific method.

In short, while Science Sleuths is well conceived and rather flashily executed, it lacks the depth and complexity to become a classic ala SimCity, Rogue/Hack, or Colossal Cave Adventure. (You might object that it's unfair to compare "edutainment" to pure entertainment, but I firmly believe that developing an internal model of a complex game is better science education than any set of glitzy flash cards.) All in all, I give it a B- - and am writing this review because I agreed to do so in exchange for free copies, not because I wanted to recommend something that's been a big hit in my house.

Still, I don't want to be too negative. This is a pretty good program with a good premise - and nearly-seven Sam does like it. If I seem to be spending more time complaining than praising, it's more because Science Sleuths' strengths are easy to describe while it's weak points are more subtle than because I think it's a poor program.

Miscellaneous Comments top

Strong Points
  • Does teach the development and testing of hypotheses, not mere trivia.
  • Slickly and attractively produced. We found no bugs in the course of perhaps ten hours play.
Weak Points
  • Rather heavy hardware requirements. The recommended minumum is a 2x CD-ROM, sound card, and 256 color display - but it was not exactly snappy on a P90 with accelerated video. It really needs that 2x CD-ROM - with a 1x CD-ROM video was so jerky as to be almost unintelligible.
  • Despite the high end requirements, it runs best in 640 by 480 (VGA) mode, so that the tiny little videos actually take a reasonable portion of the monitor. (To be fair, most other "multimedia" software seems to run in this low-res mode, too, and newer machines generally come with a "resolution exchange" program that makes switching modes a lot easier than it used to be, when Setup was likely to tell you to go dig up a floppy.)
  • Similarly, despite recommending 16 or 24 bit color, all the graphics are "dithered" to fit in a 256 color palette.
  • While by and large the various pieces of the program work well together, there are slight inconsistencies. In particular, while most of the tool are amodal (you can leave them on the screen while you use something else) and get hidden in a decidely non-Windowsy manner by clicking on a tiny little box on the frame, a couple of the others are modal (you can't use any other tool until you put away the modal one) and have a DONE button on the body of the window, within the frame.
  • The Chief Sleuth can be a bit petty at points, like always wanting to know the density of the beach blob, or the percentage of picnickers who got sick. Who cares?
  • 'She' can be similarly petty when it comes to reading your answers - the program makes no attempt to do a 'clever' job of checking your answers - any misspellings, or 'extra' words are just plain "wrong".
  • Finally, while the curious user will find some nice explanations of the tools with a bit of background beyond what's required for the game, the explanations are hidden in an "about the tools" tool, not linked to every tool window as an 'about' icon.

Part of Jon's Homeschool Resources.

Copyright © 1994..2002 Jon Shemitz <>
June 14, 1994..November 30, 2002

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This review dates from 1994 - I keep it around only as an example of my thinking about educational software.