- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2007

Imagine completing complex experiments involving nuclear material and never tugging on a Hazmat suit or testing for radioactive levels. The folks behind SciLands, the scientific portion of Second Life, are striving to make that possible for researchers and students.

Second Life (www.secondlife.com), for those who don’t know a Sim from a Simpson, is a simulated world on the Internet. Users can sign on, create their own avatar, or representative, and then visit a multitude of virtual landscapes. They can check out cyber-lands, make new friends and, as a growing number of educators hope, learn a bit in the process.

SciLands, a cooperative effort among researchers across the globe, is the latest swath of land in the virtual community. Groups already aboard include the University of Denver, England’s National Physical Laboratory and the Spaceflight Museum Planning Group, a collection of space-flight enthusiasts who created the Second Life destination known as the International Spaceflight Museum.

Proponents of learning via Second Life see it as a way to engage students, give them a level of independence otherwise not possible and even lead to more nuanced distance-learning courses.

Robert Amme, a professor at the University of Denver’s department of physics and astronomy, wants to demystify nuclear energy to give more people knowledge about factors such as beta decay and alpha particles. He thinks SciLands can be a step in that direction.

Last month, Mr. Amme helped score a $200,000 grant from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct educational experiments in Second Life. He also hopes to “install” a nuclear reactor in Second Life, something the grant may make possible.

Walk, or fly, around the University of Denver’s Second Life islands, and you’ll find not just experiments and information, but smaller touches that make the virtual world feel more like our own. A pizza box lies on the floor. Functioning his and hers restrooms can be accessed.

Such flourishes personalize the experience and, its creators hope, make it more like real life.

“You can’t teach this like a traditional classroom,” Mr. Amme says. “It can require some independence from students, and that can be hard for some.”

On Genome Island, visitors can step inside a cell and examine it from the inside out.

Distractions also can inhibit a learning session.

“The islands are open. People can just drop in,” Mr. Amme says.

Not everyone will be able to drop in, however. Limited computer power can make access to Second Life troublesome. It takes some time, too, to learn how to maneuver one’s avatar around in Second Life, the brainchild of Linden Labs in San Francisco.

And, like the Internet, Second Life’s wonders also can let less savory minds wander. Earlier this year, Brussels police began investigating a claim of rape that the victim says occurred in Second Life. In response, Second Life officials discussed instituting age verification checks into their virtual world, according to IT News Australia. The site also includes an Abuse Reporter Tool for people to click on should they feel threatened by something happening online.

Ross Perkins, a senior research associate at Virginia Tech, created a special Second Life resource, the ICT Library, to help educators use the virtual world.

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