- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

In the year 2254, 12 years after the great plague that ravaged Earth and nearly wiped out civilization, an elite team of Reconstructors was created to protect the remaining population from infectious disease through the powers of logic and scientific investigation.

This intriguing premise leads to a cyber-journey that challenges students to learn about the history and science of dangerous microbes through a simulation filled with multimedia interactivity and educational opportunities.

Medical Mysteries

Site address: https://medmyst.rice.edu/

Creator: The Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning at Rice University in Houston developed the site with a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources.

Creator quotable: “We created the MedMyst Web adventure to teach middle school students about infectious diseases. A survey of our target audiences’ media habits indicated that a mystery with elements of a computer game would be the best format for conveying scientific concepts to this group. Reports from teachers and other users tell us that this format not only appeals to students who do not normally like science, but is attractive to an older audience as well,” says Leslie Miller, project director and senior research scholar in the Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning.

Word from the Webwise: Visitors wear the hats of scientist, historian and detective as they work through three missions by assisting team leader Alpha, chief science officer Beta, robot data-collection scout Delta and robotic information resource Eureka within the city of Neuropolis and its surrounding sectors.

This rich cyber-challenge sucks the player into the action through melodramatic music of the “Tubular Bells” variety, cartoony animations, games and plenty of facts revealed by clicking on arrows, words and online activities.

Each mission — Orientation at O.R.B., Peril in Prokaryon, and Nemesis in Neuropolis — takes about 30 minutes to complete and will exhaust participants’ brains.

The first mission concentrates on the pathogens that cause infectious diseases and the defenses against them. The player first meets the Reconstructors through some slick animation, then works through five areas to understand infectious agents and ultimately takes quizzes to become a certified Reconstructor.

Along the way, he will drag disease names into some ugly creature classification areas, figure out why oranges are rotting by resurrecting 19th-century germ hunter Dr. Robert Koch to use his postulates, and see how white blood cells destroy invaders in the body.

In the second mission, the student learns about bacteria and the disease cholera by visiting an area just hit by an earthquake. The player helps refugees deal with the outbreak by studying the disease; understanding its symptoms, transmission and treatment; and then isolating its source. Legendary scientists are highlighted, and there is a slightly graphic anatomy lesson on how cholera moves through the body.

The final mission requires identifying the source of a possible smallpox outbreak that has infected a young boy. The player helps Beta in the lab and explores the life cycle of a virus, even using an electron microscope to view a real example of smallpox. He then works with Delta to search the boy’s apartment for clues to its origin and must reach an origin decision through a series of resource questionnaires.

Ease of use: Medical Mysteries needs either a PC running Windows 95 or higher or a Macintosh computer with OS 7.6.1 or higher. The computer must have a browser (Microsoft Internet Explorer version 4.0 or higher, Apple Safari and Opera version 5.0 or higher) that can handle the latest Macromedia Flash plug-in.

Don’t miss: Each mission has at least one game, and my favorite, Germ Blaster, found under Orientation at O.R.B. has the player choose from six pathogens and arms a droid with a substance to destroy them. Action takes place in a Space Invaders-type arena as the troublemakers are eradicated from the sky.

Family activity: In the Teaching Materials area for the third mission, found under the excellent For Teachers section, the whole clan can simulate the outbreak of disease and watch it spread with the help of an experiment requiring baking soda and cabbage juice. I know it sounds weird, but it will appeal to the junior epidemiologists in the family.

Cyber-sitter synopsis: A dynamic presentation combined with consistent reinforcement of concepts makes Medical Mysteries one of the best sites I have seen for mixing fun with education. The site should enthrall its target audience more than enough to complete all of the missions.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it’s accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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