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 (, 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.

For now, many universities have Second Life presences both to explore the educational possibilities and to allow prospective students to “visit” their campuses.

“Most of the folks I’m involved with are looking at it from a research standpoint and distance-learning applications,” Mr. Perkins says.

Communication also becomes more nuanced, and more profound, when a person’s avatar encounters another in the virtual world.

“When my avatar is chatting to another avatar, I can’t just break away or multitask in a virtual world,” Mr. Perkins says. However, if a person were to instant-message someone online, he or she might surf the Web or go get a cup of coffee in between interactions.

“People are researching presence in Second Life. How does the avatar itself impact communication?” he says.

Science teachers in particular have reason to consider entering Second Life, Mr. Perkins says.

“It’s a way to help students learn in a way that is not lecture-based, but exploration-based,” he says. In other words, like a scientist learns.

“You can be presented with a problem, then hypothesize about the problem, and it all can be built,” he says. “You wind up having a process that’s a lot more like science than memorizing formulas and facts.”

Second Life and other virtual experiences let students and teachers undergo experiments they otherwise would never be able to touch, says David Alan Grier, an associate professor of science and technology policy at George Washington University.

Students could watch an internal combustion engine from the inside and watch every change that occurs within without any cautions, Mr. Grier says.

“You can’t possibly do that in a high school or a college lab. It’s too expensive and dangerous,” he says.

Also, if the experiment in question has horrific consequences, there’s no muss, no fuss in Second Life.

Then again, students and researchers alike benefit from what Mr. Grier calls “gaining actual mastery of the universe.”

With Second Life, “you’re playing with bits, and you know you’re playing with bits,” he says, adding that students won’t experience the smells or the heat from various experiments.

“It’s more psychological than anything, but it’s still important,” he says.

Jeffrey Corbin, director of the University of Denver’s Science School, says Second Life installments such as genome activities let teachers copy and paste past experiments into text documents for future study. The virtual world’s potential is “somewhat limitless,” Mr. Corbin says.

“It’s up to one’s imagination.”

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