This is an archived article that was published on in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Meteorites are streaming to earth and knocking out the adults.

To rescue their parents, teens have to work together to collect dirt from Mars and thwart NASA hackers.

On Monday, those scenarios will kick off a $2 million virtual reality game from researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Maryland.

In real life, university scientists hope the game will tell them how to fill gaming rosters and laboratories nationwide with more women, minorities and others typically left out of gaming culture and development.

Researchers' highest hope is that "Falling Dust" or simply "Dust," available free online, will make any American kid feel at home calling herself a gamer or a scientist.

"If we can do that, I think we've found the secret sauce that will crack open the U.S.'s ability for great discoveries," said Jeff Sheets, a BYU professor of communications who helped oversee the project.

But the gaming researchers have a long way to go.

Men in technology and science continue to outpace their female colleagues. For example, at the University of Utah, fewer than one in five undergraduate engineering majors are women — about 20 percent. At BYU, the proportion drops to 15 percent.

The national average falls between the two — at 17.5 percent — according to a 2013 U.S. Census report.

Meanwhile, the national Gamergate controversy — where women gamers' addresses and personal information has been posted online to intimidate them — and the Utah-based death threats against feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian in October reveal a sexist strain in the world of video games.

The team of BYU professors, students and independent game designers hope to turn that around.

Their effort has drawn the attention of federal officials. The National Science Foundation bankrolled the project with a three-year, $2 million grant. "Dust" is the first of two virtual reality games paid for by the grant.

When it comes to female players, some studies suggest girls gravitate toward games based on group play and unfolding story lines.

"Dust" researchers hope to build on that previous research in new ways, including tracking players' online correspondence with characters to gauge their interest, or "fascination levels," and whether certain players believe they are good at science.

Players will be able to chat with the game's characters — girls and boys spanning multiple races and backgrounds — as about a dozen BYU students pull the digital strings, responding around the clock to the messages.

The game's target age group ranges from 13 to 18 years old.

"Dust" has been tested in a few Utah schools. After Monday's online launch, the game will be available for seven weeks.

"The challenge is designing activities that are engaging, but also give us good data," said June Ahn, a Maryland information technology professor working on the project.

That's where the game's social media component comes in: Players and game characters will have Facebook-like profiles, where they can chat and trade experiences.

That interaction beats a typical research questionnaire, said Ahn.

"It's kind of lame, in the middle of a fun experience, to give somebody a little test to take," he said.

At the University of Maryland, student researchers have already spent months tailoring the game to students' interests, Ahn said, creating a "rich ecosystem" meant to draw in female and minority players.

The effort goes beyond simply including a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds in the game's character cast. Last fall, about two dozen information technology students swarmed classrooms at two urban Washington, D.C. middle schools to observe. They recorded the teens' fascination with YouTubers, online makeup tutorials, and even their suggestions for the game — including a stopwatch counting down to their character's demise.

While the Maryland students are hammering out the data points, BYU is at work on the game production.

On campus in Provo, information technology professor Derek Hansen oversees a team of about 40 students making $9 to $15 an hour, depending on their role in the game.

Students are creating on a packaged version for groups of 15-20 students. A commercial version is likely farther out.

At BYU, about one-fourth of the student programmers working on the game are female. The school does not have a formal video game program.

At the U., about 25 percent of undergraduate students in the arts, entertainment and engineering program are female.

"You kind of get pegged as a kid: Either you're good at science or not," said Sheets, and gender has typically played a large role in that sorting. "It shouldn't be that way."

One of the project's creative writers, senior Bellinda Zoller, said she started gaming to bridge her love of arts, music and storytelling. The founder of the BYU gaming club and senior advertising major is planning to design or market games as a career. Zoller calls herself a "non-science person," but hopes the game will successfully draw teens into astronomy and biology.

"We can help make science cool and exciting," she said. "It's changing perceptions a little bit at a time that will make a big difference, I think, in the long run."

DUST kickoff:

6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 26, at the Discovery Space Center in Pleasant Grove. 886 W. 2600 North. › XX