Flying along your DNA: the study of genetics in a virtual universe

Students in Finland used virtual reality to walk inside the double helix of a DNA molecule. Pasi Vilpas, a biology teacher at the The Sotunki Distance Learning Centre in Vantaa, invited his pupils to enter the three-dimensional online virtual world of Second Life and walk and fly inside the crucial molecule.


In real life, DNA is threaded so finely that it can only be seen with an electron microscope. By using avatars, the digital players or characters of Second Life, students can explore the human genome by ‘flying’ into an apparently vast DNA molecule and ‘walking’ along a human gene. Pasi’s latest online virtual biological world will be showcased at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2011.


Noting that the study of genetics gets too abstract for many secondary school students, Pasi Vilpas deployed his own quirky sense of humour to create an astonishing learning environment for his students, offering them flying avatars, magic carpets, songs, dances and sound effects.


The concept of the avatar is already well-known to the 20 million worldwide users of Second Life, a notably collaborative virtual world that was developed in 2001 by Philip Rosedale’s Linden Lab, as a place where users, known as ‘residents’, interact with each other through their avatars.


At the heart of the game is a vast DNA double helix, apparently 200 meters high and 500 meters in diameter. The students make their own avatars sit, walk and fly around the spiral structure to learn how the gene makes proteins, step by step.


They learn how the transfer RNAs, depicted in Second Life as cartoon character chauffeurs, deliver amino acids to the ribosome to make proteins that will be joined in the correct sequence. Information boxes offer explanatory text and sound files.


“These boxes form a learning pathway through the basics of genetics,” says Pasi Vilpas.


“My test students have been very enthusiastic. The environment delivers information in an attractive manner without any need for the teacher to be present.”


There is even a dance floor in Pasi’s virtual universe. The students make their avatars dance as they themselves sing along with a quirky tune that helps remind them of the different phases of the genetic process.


To encourage participation, engagement and pure fun, the students use virtual iPads to share what they have learned with each other and with “the world outside”.


Pasi’s innovative model activates numerous ‘learning channels’ to teach genetics by ‘touching’, watching, listening, dancing, singing and reading.


When Pasi tested the virtual environment with a number of groups of ten students he was delighted to discover that “they even gather in this virtual environment in their leisure time.”


He will reveal more details in his presentation “Teaching Genetics in The Second Life with a Large-Scale 3D-Model of DNA” at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2011.

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