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City Tech Charts New Ground in Virtual World of ‘Second Life’

Lansiquot, Barbara and Smith with their ‘Second Life’ avatars. Photo credit: Alberto Vargas.

These days, City Tech faculty and students are happy to oblige if anyone tells them to “get a life.”

That’s because several classes are involved with developing the College’s presence in Second Life (SL) (http://www.secondlife.com), a virtual digital world created by its more than nine million “residents,” where alter egos (avatars) they have constructed live, play and work in immersive environments -- artificial, interactive, computer-created scenes or “worlds” within which users can immerse themselves and interact with others.

For instance, through manipulating their avatars’ movements, students can walk around in, fly through and thoroughly explore such virtual environments as the Sistine Chapel, foreign cities, lecture halls and workplaces.

On “CityTech Island,” the College’s SL site, students from various academic disciplines not only observe, but also, along with their professors, help create that world, which challenges them to use and master 3-D modeling skills in some cases or script-writing skills in others.

“Some consider Second Life only a game,” says City Tech Entertainment Technology Professor David Smith, “but we see it as a huge outlet for creative activity, allowing students and faculty to work on projects as a team.” Smith introduced SL to the College and uses it in the Introduction to Interactive Technology, Design Process course and for his senior students’ final projects.

City Tech professors currently using SL in their classes, in addition to Smith, are Isaac Barjis and Walied Samarrai (biological sciences); Reneta Lansiquot (English) and Jenna Spevack (entertainment technology). All of them have presented papers on their work or have reached out to involve segments of the larger community -- Brooklyn artists, for example.  At the College, they have been supported by Karen Lundstrem, director of instructional technology, and her staff.

CityTech Island features a virtual laboratory where professor avatars lecture and conduct experiments. Biology students can take a special ride -- inside a virtual cell. At the International Summer Simulation Multiconference, held in Istanbul and co-sponsored by the Society for Modeling and Simulation International and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Smith, Barjis and Samarrai presented a research paper, “Modeling and Simulation of 3-D Virtual Cell as a Game,” to an audience of top simulation and modeling researchers.

Their paper, published in the conference proceedings (Simulation Journal, Simulation Series Volume 41:4), proposed SL as a tool enabling students to enter, observe and visit a cell’s components, ask questions and interact with those components as one would in a video game. “Students can tour the cell, take a quiz and test their knowledge after and before the tour,” explains Samarrai. “We are working now on other processes such as transportation and diffusion of molecules, ions and water across the cell membrane.”

“In order to learn, students must be actively engaged in solving problems using such higher-order thinking tasks as analysis and synthesis,” adds Barjis. “In Second Life, students (avatars) can take on the identity of a molecule, an enzyme or a substrate and become part of a biochemical process. When that process gets stuck, they have to find solutions to keep it going. For example, when students select to enter the cell as an ion (Na+, K+, H+), they must find the appropriate channels/pumps through which to enter and figure what signals open the channel.”

Lansiquot, who teaches advanced technical writing, and student Meleny Perez (computer systems technology), presented their research, “A Student’s Guide to Virtual Worlds,” at the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications in Honolulu, Hawaii, and were awarded the “best presentation” prize. They evaluated the use of virtual worlds and the manuals created for students by students, and found that, overall, participating students’ apprehension about writing was significantly lowered (http://www.editlib.org/p/31568).

Like Lansiquot, Barjis and Samarrai find SL conducive to “blended learning,” both online and face-to-face, and interdisciplinary studies. For example, students from several academic disciplines are involved in the 3-D cell project. Biology students provide information and monitor the accuracy of biological processes; entertainment technology students, computer science, advanced technical writing, and advertising and graphic design students help write a script and construct models.

Says Samarrai, “As far as I know, this is one of the first projects designed for students to actively participate in and learn by playing an educational game. They can personify a cell component or process and then must ‘behave correctly’ to score points.” 

Adds Smith, “We envision that students will add to the set of games. We can combine designers, programmers and fabricators to generate additional game sets specified by advanced biology students, who must have an intimate understanding of the biological process being modeled.”

Labs are just one island attraction. Spevack and her Introduction to Media Design Process students planned, designed and developed the virtual "Brooklyn is Watching" Museum. It houses photos of artwork created by the Brooklyn is Watching Project, which invites interaction between the thriving art communities of Second Life and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Video Walk-thru: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCHY3N4OrCo).The Project and Museum will continue to evolve during the spring 2010 semester.

On CityTech Island, students also can visit a bookstore, café and gym. Soon, entertainment technology student Matthew Barbara’s senior project will enable those who missed or want to re-live the department’s spooky Halloween extravaganza, Gravesend Inn, to do so any time they wish. And Lansiquot's students are writing instruction manuals, including an interactive version, for models of our solar system, the human brain and lungs, and tornados, among others, all of which are on the site.

Right now, CityTech Island is nearly full; faculty members are developing a proposal to buy another, enabling the College to own a public one for display and a private one for research.

Smith asserts that although hundreds of colleges have SL sites, many don’t use them, at least to the extent that City Tech does, “We are a good example of ‘best practices’ at a technology college,” he says. “Unlike in most other colleges’ courses and curricula, our students study the implementation of virtual environments as a career track. They’ll be working with virtual worlds and/or immersive environments when they become professionals.”

12.10.09


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