The cell game

Behind the scenes

For Phil McClean, a tall and lean guy with light silvery hair, it's all about the genes. He's a molecular genetics professor, and curator of a computer database called BeanGenes. His graduate training spanned plant breeding and the physiology of dry beans, and these days, he studies the common bean -- phaseolus vulgaris -- pinpointing disease, color and pattern genes. McClean grew up on Air Force bases around the world, and so he's a person with an eclectic global viewpoint. He freely admits he gets his news from the Daily Show on Comedy Central. By his own admission, he is cautious about how much student learning is improved by technology.

Contrast that background with the dark-haired Minnesotan who tools around campus on his bicycle, decidedly low-tech transportation for a high-tech guy. For Brian Slator, it's all about computer wizardry. His office display case includes a significant collection of Batman memorabilia, not so much by design as by happenstance. People kept giving him stuff because they thought he collected it after seeing that he had one item, which led to another and another by well-intentioned gift givers. As a computer science professor, Slator's world is populated by bytes, bits and computer-ese foreign to non-technical audiences. He has no hobbies. "My job is to research and develop educational games and I love my job. With a job like mine, you don't need hobbies." He is among several North Dakota State University faculty who are exuberant about the benefits of using technology in teaching.

McClean's and Slator's distinctly different skills combine to lead teams who create virtual worlds where students learn science in a unique way. For a generation whose daily existence is tethered to computers, cell phones, iPods and the Internet, these methods reach them in more dynamic fashion than a static textbook. High technology blends with solid teaching methods to pull students in and more importantly, help them master processes and solve problems.

It's unlikely these professors grew up thinking they'd become computer game creators or movie producers. And maybe their animated movies are not the scale of notable studios like Pixar or their computer games as ubiquitous as Super Mario Brothers. But through projects such as the NDSU Virtual Cell Lab and its accompanying Animation Collection, they've created a buzz that any Hollywood publicist might envy.

Successful movie-making is based on many things, including casting the right people in the right roles. McClean and Slator's tale to create a unique style of computer games and animation to teach science and other topics began in the mid-1990s. The story is not dissimilar to major movie producers who option material that takes years to be developed. Sometimes it takes hard work. Sometimes it takes luck. Above all, it takes money. For McClean and Slator, that perfect storm of talent and timing seems to take shape in something called the World Wide Web Instructional Committee at North Dakota State University. Its ensemble cast includes an eclectic group of educational disciplines -- Bernie Saini-Eidukat and Don Schwert from geosciences, Jeff Terpstra in statistics, education professor Lisa Daniels and anthropologist Jeff Clark.

There is also the technical crew, akin to those people who win Academy Awards for sound, lighting, costumes, visual effects and cinematography. These are people whose specialized skills make movies, games and virtual worlds possible. That includes NDSU computer programmers such as Brad Vender, computer visualization manager Aaron Bergstrom, as well as artists Christina Johnson and Roxanne Rogers. The technical crew, directed by professors on the World Wide Web Instructional Committee, creates virtual worlds that enhance how students learn.

In skilled hands, software creates virtual worlds, games and movies that reach students in new ways. The Virtual Cell Animation Collection -- mini-movies to teach biology -- represents only a portion of the virtual worlds available. Another Web site welcomes students to the NDSU Virtual Cell Lab. "You will be directed toward your research vessel, a Mark IV re-sizing submarine, and its onboard laboratory," notes the game's guide. "You will have a set of controls with which you will maneuver your research vessel, find general cell information and perform experiments. Others can be inside a cell with you. These other researchers are also equipped with a Mark IV research vessel."

Players control a virtual submarine to explore plant and animal cells from the inside. Once students begin playing, they seamlessly enter a virtual world to become scientists: performing experiments, interacting with the world and with each other, applying scientific method.

The VCell game allows students from all over the world to communicate, working together simultaneously in their virtual research vessels. Other virtual worlds allow students to discover geology, anthropology and economics through a variety of online educational games.

Slator and McClean are proud of the talent available at NDSU to develop these projects. "Ninety-five percent of the people who work on the project are NDSU students," says McClean. The project provides both undergraduate and graduate students unique opportunities. One computer science student, for example, is working on a data mining project to better understand how students use the Virtual Cell game. Other students are honing their computer programming skills through the project.

Audiences, students and gamers see the fun. Teachers see results. "We believe this approach has benefits. They're eye catching. Students expect a certain level of visual drama or realism," says Slator. Whether movies or games, what happens onscreen becomes possible because the VCell team solves complex computer programming challenges behind the scenes. A robust tutoring system guides students step-by-step. A course management system handles registration for professors who assign students The Virtual Cell and other programs in their classes.

Talent, time and money make it all possible. Approximately $3 million in funding has come from the National Science Foundation and from the U.S. Department of Education. Software companies known as Alias/Wavefront provided additional assistance. At the request of the National Science Foundation, artist Christina Johnson created a movie that covers all the projects the World Wide Web Instructional Committee is developing.

The magical melding of science, art, technology and education creates opportunities. VCell -- The Game, The Movie -- can sequels and marketing tie-ins at fast food restaurants be far behind? In the future, an animated movie or educational computer game from NDSU might become as identifiable as a Coen brothers picture or the computer game PacMan -- at least in scientific circles. In a virtual world, anything is possible.

-- C. Renner

To view the virtual worlds mentioned, visit:
http://vcell.ndsu.edu/animations/
http://vcell.ndsu.edu/public.html
http://wwwic.ndsu.edu/