Monday, January 13, 2014

Exploring Human Biology in a Virtual Education Environment

I would like to take you back to when you were taking high school Biology. I am sure that many of you can recall the amazing things that were possible when the Internet and its tools were brought to bare on tasks in Biology. The ability to do realistic dissections digitally of animals without using the real thing and to learn the biological functions as you did blew us a way and we considered teachers who used such methods as on the leading edge of their subject. You can probably think of other instances in which the Internet was used to help students experience the wonders of the subject matter. Well, it is time to step back from the edge because it is no longer the leading edge because as the Internet has advanced in what it has to offer so must virtual education experiences. What I am going to describe to you sounds like science fiction but just remember when the digital dissections hit the scene, this too was considered science fiction and not likely to lead anywhere. Consider the possibilities of creating virtual worlds to engross students in the world of Biology. Here are just some ideas:
The subject is Biology:
  • The subtopic of study is the human body's immune system.
  • The virtual world created involves the following scenario. You are an immunologist. You have been called upon to help analyze and eradicate an unknown pathogen which has all the potential to cause a world wide pandemic if not stopped in time.
  • You must enlist the help of a number of other scientists who will be part of a multidisciplinary team that must work together to achieve the proposed goal in time. The other roles will involve scientists skilled in: Recombinant DNA, Virology and Nanotechnology.
  • Before you enter the virtual world which is composed of a research laboratory, each scientist must introduce themselves through a YouTube video and then take on an avatar which you will use to interact with the other scientists.
  • Each scientist must keep a daily scientific journal in which he or she records their efforts in coming to terms with the proposed goal.
  • Upon entering a most advanced lab, you find that there are designated areas where each scientists have equipment germane to their field to conduct experiments. A door leads to a common discussion area where the scientists can discuss their daily challenges and where they can do collaboration.
  • Each of you have access to a well known scientist in your field who takes the shape of an avatar. The purpose of this scientist is to act as a mentor for your chosen field. He/she is also someone you can bounce ideas off of.
  • The mentor avatars are as follows but this list could involve other scientists that the teacher is familiar with. For Virology a suggested mentor would be Dr. J. Michael Bishop; for Recombinant DNA, two suggested mentors would be Dr. Carol O. Tacket or Dr. H.S. Mason and for the science of Nanotechnology are Dr. K. Eric Drexler or Dr. Sumio Lijima. These names are not written in stone as other names well known in their fields could be substituted.
  • Once the pathogen's characteristics are identified, each of the scientists must make a proposal based upon their area of expertise on how to eradicate it. The two main potential sources for the solutions may come from the sciences of Recombinant DNA and Nanotechnology.
  • Again as before this team of students will have a time limit to complete their simulation. 
  • The final task is for them to create a multimedia presentation on their methods and solutions. Real scientists from the different fields who volunteer their time would be invited to give input into the scientific merit of what is presented. Now,before we bring up the idea that young people are not capable of making scientific breakthroughs, I would like to share with you the simple fact that a student that I had taught a number of years ago came up with a breakthrough in the treatment of Malaria that literally cuts the costs of treating populations in half. She did this before she had finished her first year of University training. Again. the secret is to ignite the passion for learning in a student and then stand back but be available when called upon.
  • Assessment would take the form of the evaluation of the daily journal, effective collaboration and the input of the teacher and the scientists on the student presentation.
If you are wondering what role the teacher would play in all of this, he or she would be the event coordinator. He or she could also alter and troubleshoot the variables in the simulation. He or she would have the ability to introduce a conflict variable into the simulation that requires the students to solve a problem through collaboration under stress. Again, if you think that this is too far into the future to prove itself out, just remember that we now have a 3D printer that does things that we would have thought was impossible 6 months ago.

More later......

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