Friday, March 14, 2008

A Second Life Field Trip

My genetics syllabus had for the first time a field trip scheduled as part of the lab. Not to a see some exotic genetic oddity or a biotech company. Instead, I decided to take my students on a little excursion in Second Life to Max Chatnoir's Genome Island. I blogged about Max last year and she has made many changes to her site making it much more open and easy to navigate. So, with the help of JCCC's Education Technology Center which provided a computer lab with Second Life ready to go, today Friday the 14th was the day for the trip.






I have been in Second Life for almost three years been in world with groups of faculty. But I had never led a group myself. During Wednesday's lecture, I gave them a little show and tell about Second Life and developed a brief tutorial for them to read about how to register and create an avatar. They had to do the registration process to get a basic account on their own as an out of class assignment. Most students managed to do that without any difficulty.

In the computer lab today I had them log on to the Second Life client. This puts them in Second Life's orientation area. I had them move to a quiet spot where I had them add my avatar, Simone as a friend and also join a group so that I could talk to them and send them teleport notices if they got lost.

















The group's notice had a note card with landmarks to the sites were visiting today. I asked them to keep this note card in their inventory but leave it open as a small window.




By the way, Second Life's orientation site is much less confusing than when I had to go through the process, but with a group it seemed best to do my own orientation.




So I had them immediately teleport to my land via a landmark on the note card and showed them the basics of moving and interacting with objects for maybe 5 minutes. Here is my main avatar Simone waiting for them to arrive. I had a scripted sign ready to show them how to interact with objects-in this simply to get another copy of the note card.


































Here is some of my class arriving at my land for their brief orientation.


Then we were off to Genome Island where Max Chatnoir was graciously waiting for us. Max, in the white coat, first took us to Mendel's Abbey and garden where she has a very nice simulation of Mendel's crosses. One nice feature, is a link to an Excel spreadsheet where students can record the phenotype of the plants produced by successive breedings. We also saw a work in progress-a translation game where students could play the part of tRNA's selecting the proper amino acids. A very cute breeding experiment involving sex linkage of coat color in cats is also worth a look.



















Next we went to Genome Tower. This used to be an enclosed skyscraper like affair, but Max has nicely opened it up by having platforms connected by ramps, the platforms being ringed by barriers to keep the visitor from falling over the edge. Some of my old favorites are still around such as the fruit fly lab and the human chromosome exhibit shown here. She has refined and added new things such as a comparison between the chromosomes of different mammals showing regions of chromosomal synteny which is a type of homology allowing scientists to infer the sorts of chromosomal changes that may have happened in the evolution of a particular group of species.







In real life Max has done some interesting things translating protein and DNA sequences to sounds. She says that hearing the amino acid sequences reveals organizational patterns not apparent visually. Here are some of my students with Max at her protein music station. An exhibit has mp3 files of the results. But given time constraints and lag we didn't get to listen to the files. We are just doing protein structure as part of translation..so this will require a return trip.







Links about her work with John Dunn on protein and DNA music:




This link plays samples of the music...wonderful.


We also visited Scilands orientation site. This is a nice alternative to Second Life's normal orientation and had I known how nice it is, might have opted to run my students through it rather than orient them at my Second Life home. There are also teleport sites to other science sites, commercial, academic and government.













All in all a very interesting trip. There were a few minor glitches. One was that our lab's computers did not have the latest Second Life client with the built in media browser and there was no web on a prim. Lag was a problem and the immediate student complaint because of it was that Second Life was slow. Indeed chat was slow which made things confusing. We did have maybe 20 people in the same sim (simulation) at various times and all the chatting combined with various objects whispering to us combined with the lag made it a bit difficult to play with Max's experiments. There were also a couple of amusing teleport problems.



After about 2.5 hours it was time to take leave of Max, who was most patient with me and my group of Second Life novices. From my perspective as a teacher the trip was a good introduction to Second Life and the students seemed to grasp the idea of how Second Life worked. After leaving Max we returned to my home where I showed them a few other things, such as building and a bit about scripting. I left them with a WEBCT/Blackboard assignment namely to provide some feedback on their Second Life experience-what they liked and didn't like and why. It will be interesting to see their written reactions.


So if you are going to take a group of Second Life Novices here are some tips.

1. Do some advance planning and determine whether you are going to have them go through Second Life's orientation or take the group to another site for a less confusing orientation. Since it had been three years since my Second Life birth, I created a new basic membership avatar to run through the registration process just to see how it had changed. I made a quick and dirty tutorial for them including pictures of the registration process and what students would see in Second Life. One nice improvement is the avatar selection screen which gives the new Second Life citizen a wide range of avatars to start from. My student really seemed to like that.





2. Create and have the students join a Second Life group to facilitate keeping every one more or less together or at least in the same universe worked very well. I think my group size - 15 students- is probably the maximum size to handle at least if you are going to intensively interactive sites such as Genome Island.
















3. If you are visiting a site- try to let the site owner know you are coming. At least in the Science sites the owners or creators love to show off their stuff. They also like to see how visitors react to things on their site. Again scope out the site before you go and have some idea what you want them to see.


4. Warn them of potential problems. For instance since when you log on for the very first time you get dumped into Second Life's orientation, I warned them to get out of the way of new avatars coming in behind them. Also I warned them a about the possibility of "griefers" and that they could encounter mature areas with explicit sexual materials.










Being with them in a lab where they could see my view projected on a screen made dealing with any problems easier. Plus they go to see several amusing teleporter incidents.


One thing I might have done in retrospect is give them some Second Life money (Lindens) to spend since they just got free basic memberships.There were several vending machines in the science areas selling shirts and other goodies for nominal fees say 10$L and that might have been fun. Fortunately Max had outs of free shirts for the group.


Thanks to Max for graciously taking the time to show us around and JCCC's Ed Tech Center for providing lab space for our trip.
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