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Interview about the genetic revolution of Second Life

I mean Second Life, the virtual world provides exceptional educational opportunities. One of these (my personal favourite) is the Genomic Island which I’ve already written about. The island is full of genetic quizes, virtual experiments, animations, links to useful webpages and many more. Now, Max Chatnoir (Second Life name), the creator of the island and also the mind behind this big idea kindly agreed to answer some of my questions:

  • Please tell us how and why did you start to use Second Life!

My husband writes computer programs for algorithmic artists (http://algoart.com), and a friend of his introduced us to Second Life. We went in to look around, and quickly saw the educational potential.

  • How did you come up with the idea to create an educational island for genetics?

Well, first, I teach genetics in RL. Second, because so much of genetics is quantitative, it’s easy to simulate genetics experiments in SL. Third, one of the problems with teaching online courses is creating meaningful laboratories. In Second Life you have an immersive environment in which students can actually “do” experiments that produce analyzable data.

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  • How much time does it take to build and maintain it?

The building and scripting take a lot of time. I started Mendel’s Abbey, the first part of the genetics complex at the end of 2004. So I’ve been working on it for over two years, mostly summers and over other school holidays.

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  • I’ve found plenty of quizes, animations and descriptions about genetic terms on the Gene Pool island. What kind of sources do you use to write these?

I’ve been teaching for over 25 years, and most of the material on Genome Island is pitched at the level of a beginning university student, so mostly I just pull it out of my head. DNA and amino acid sequences come from genetics databases like NCBI and SwissProt. There are also links from various experiments out to these and other databases. Many of the historical objects in the Abbey use (with permission from the museum) images from the Mendel Museum at Brno. Other images are from universities or from public domain sources; sources for these are listed with their object.

  • How many participants, builders do you have?

Three other SL residents have contributed to various parts of Genome Island. Susan Tsuki suggested the Evolutionary Genetics library and collected the URLs for it, Elizabeth Gloucester wrote nearly all of the text for the Garden of Prokaryote Genomes, and Apaul Balut added important content to the notecards on the human mitochondrial genome. I’ve done all of the building myself, although some of the decorative objects, like birds, trees and flowers, were purchased from or donated by other SL creators.

  • Do you try to get your students involved in the project? Do they use it as a source of genetic information?

My university only recently got computer resources that my own students could use to run the SL program, so my introductory students were only on the site (before it was moved to the current island) for a couple of weeks. However, I learned something even from that brief experience. The best way to use the materials is to make specific assignments, and then let the students work either independently or in small groups. Next fall I hope to entice some of the advanced students to do some building and create new experiments on the site. Other teachers have also brought students to the site, and I’ll be interested to learn from them how they are using the materials.

  • You’ve recently changed place for the island. What are your plans for the near future?

Shortly after I got the island, I applied for membership in the SciLands, a group of adjacent islands focussed on physical, life and space science. There are 19 islands in the cluster now and it’s growing fast! My plans for the near future are to add new experiments, get some grant support to help maintain the island, convince a colleague to add a cell biology island near mine, and to initiate a teacher training program for teachers who might want to take some of the materials now on Genome Island into the Teen Grid. Also, in keeping with the tradition of the SciLands, I’d like Genome Island to serve as a place where students and other people can meet and talk with professional geneticists.

She is a wonderful person who seeks to help students how to learn genetics better. If you’re interested to see the Genomic Island’s educational opportunities, you can teleport there from here.

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