Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ALBUQUERQUE--The home page of the Food Detectives Web site is like the entrance to a haunted house carnival ride beckoning kids to come inside.
"Somewhere, anywhere, even in your hometown--it's bacteria!" warns a chilling voice as cartoon images of little green monsters flash across the home page. "Join the food detectives in investigating foodborne illnesses," says the voice. "Investigate the crimes and fight BAC!"
The award-winning site, accessible in English and Spanish at http://www.fooddetectives.org, was developed by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service to teach kids basic food safety principles, such as washing their hands, heating foods thoroughly and refrigerating leftovers.
"We wanted a Web site that kids would visit for the fun of it, while also learning," said project director Barbara Chamberlin, an Extension educational media and instructional technology specialist. "The site is designed for free time learning. It's not part of school or homework assignments, so we tried to make it as fun as possible to compete with TV, the Web and PlayStation."
Using flash animation, the site offers games and activities to engage 8- to 12-year-olds as they learn about bacteria and foodborne illness.
Original cartoon characters guide children through educational video games, such as an arcade-style gallery where kids shoot bacteria with fire and soap, an interactive board game where kids answer questions about when to wash their hands, a game of concentration about handling food safely when making snacks and meals, and a section for kids to design and print their own food safety stickers.
The site also features five original children's songs with videos about food safety, as well as information and resources for adults. An activities section offers hands-on food safety experiments that adults and kids can do together, such as cooking eggs for different lengths of time to investigate heat's effect on food and experimenting with handwashing techniques to learn the most effective way to kill bacteria.
Many ideas for games and activities came directly from kids NMSU involved in developing the site, Chamberlin said.
A site evaluation with 70 youngsters showed significant knowledge gain about food safety issues, she said.
"We found that all kids who played on the Web site enjoyed it, and they often recommended it to their friends," Chamberlin said. "It generally kept them engaged for 1 to 2 hours, and the more they played it, the more they learned. Not everyone who played learned everything, but everyone learned something."
NMSU plans to add more games and activities. "We're looking at adding a 'poop goggles' game that will show how remnants stick all over the kitchen and other places if you don't wash your hands," she said. "That's a more sophisticated way of teaching, because kids will learn to wash not just because somebody told them to, but because they realize it's a good thing to do."
The Web site, which won the 2003 gold award from Agricultural Communicators in Education for innovative use of communications technology, was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State, Research, Education and Extension Service as part of the national Fight BAC Campaign.
The campaign, launched in 1997, aims to reduce foodborne illnesses, which sicken millions of people nationwide each year, causing thousands of deaths annually, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC estimates about 300,000 people per year are hospitalized from foodborne illnesses.
The campaign focuses on four simple, but basic food safety principles: clean hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from cooked meat and vegetables to avoid cross contamination, cook foods thoroughly and chill or refrigerate food promptly.
"The USDA made our job a lot easier by promoting those four clear, simple messages that everyone can understand," Chamberlin said. "The Web site emphasizes all four of these things in the games. In fact, each cartoon character food detective represents one of the messages, such as Thermy the thermometer for cooking foods to proper temperatures."
Martha Archuleta, an Extension food and nutrition specialist, said the Web site helps experts effectively reach out to kids.
"It's such a cool site, because kids can learn while having fun," Archuleta said. "That's usually the best way to educate them."
© 2013 New Mexico State University Board of Regents
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