September 2010

Virtual Reality in Science Education

Science’s Second Coming

Our intrepid ASBMB avatar learns about DNA base-pairing and replication at Genome Island, one of the many science-themed virtual environments in Second Life.

Virtual lectures and virtual labs are one thing, but virtual worlds take the immersive, interactive experience to a whole new level. And, for those interested in science, the place to be is the SciLands continent in the Second Life world.

Have you ever thought about talking a stroll on the Martian surface? Or maybe flying through a hurricane after you’ve helped Gregor Mendel examine his pea plants? SciLands can make that happen.

Once the domain of text-based chat rooms and message boards, visually based online communities have gained momentum as meeting places for like-minded individuals seeking a little escape from their immediate surroundings. Though such worlds principally have been geared toward massive online games like World of Warcraft, virtual communities designed for social and educational activity also are popular.

One of the most popular social destinations is Second Life, developed in 2003. Like other platforms of its kind, Second Life offers individuals a chance to create an alter ego, or avatar, and explore a virtual community, created and updated by the user population, where events range from the mundane to the exotic.

The educational appeal of Second Life, especially in the sciences, was apparent quickly; with just a modicum of programming and scripting skills, users could develop virtual exhibits that could replicate experiments that might be too risky, expensive or time-consuming in real life, all packaged in a colorful game-like environment that encourages learning and is accessible from any Internet connection.


As a result, many universities and science organizations developed “lands” in second life, and many of them got together eventually and formed a region dedicated to science and technology, called SciLands.

For example, one can visit Genome Island, developed by Texas Wesleyan University professor Mary Anne Clark, and try various fun activities, such as crossing pea plants, looking at X-linked inheritance in a cat colony and carrying out a bacterial transformation.

And, Clark recently taught a fully in-world genetics course for nonmajors to examine the applicability of this teaching approach, which combines the convenience of online learning with the social interaction of a traditional small-class setting.

Nick Zagorski ( is a science writer at ASBMB.

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A fascinating glimpse into what is available now and what is coming in short order - well done. Some notion of the start-up costs and how they could be phased in would also be helpful. Please do continue this as a series. Stan Scordilis - Smith College



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