A Seacoast in Bohemia

Comfort Me With Apples
October 11, 2007, 7:34 pm
Filed under: Class Notes

This week, the genetics students had their first building session, in preparation for their class project.  It was wonderfully chaotic — they were working on two levels of the Atelier Sandbox, and there is now prim litter everywhere!  One of the students made apples for everybody, each one with one of our names floating over it.   

Apples for Everybody

To help get them started, I gave each of them four simple pre-scripted interactive objects with instructions on how to modify the objects and the embedded scripts.  Each of the objects was a prototype of objects to be found in many places around Genome Island. 

One object was a Notecard Giver, typical of the informational or instructive notecards associated with each of the activities on the island.  A second object was a URL Giver, typical of activities that ask visitors to use an external resource, like a stored spreadsheet, or a database, or a bioinformatics program.  Another was a simple Object Rezzer that popped out a cone when clicked.  The fourth prototype was a color/texture changer that changes the appearance of each member of a group of objects linked to a click-activated trigger. 

In each case, the students were invited to save a reference copy of each object and then make changes in either the object itself or its script.  The objects could also be unlinked so that the individual prims and their scripts could be saved to inventory as separate items.   An early result of this experimentation, after one of the students discovered the sculptie folder,  was the wealth of apples.  I think the apples actually started life as an object label!  Another of the students jumped right into experimenting with object dimensions and textures and filled her space with huge multicolored sculptures. 

I can’t wait to see what these items will morph into next!


October 9, 2007, 7:12 pm
Filed under: Class Notes

No, the title isn’t misspelled. 

Last week I put proximity sensors all around the island to see where visitors go.  There are twenty of them, carefully laid out and sized to avoid overlaps.  The sensors are the Freebie version of Hackshaven Harford’s splendid data collection system, which he offers at Maya Realities.  


The commercial version offers a huge amount of information to sim owners, but even the simple sampling I can do with the freebie version is making a data junkie out of me.    Basically it tells me how many unique visitors have wandered into the range of a sensor and how long they stayed there.  This gives me some idea of how much different parts of the island hold a visitor’s attention. 

It doesn’t tell me what time who went where, but it will give me readouts for the previous hour, day or week, so I can track visits just by collecting data periodically and pasting it into a spreadsheet.   So what have I inferred so far?

1.  People seem to like the Cattery.  The job of the cats is to demonstrate an X linked trait, so each of the parental combinations produces a different progeny set when clicked.  They will also meow at you.  One of my favorite computer simulations for genetics is Judith Kinnear’s CatLab.   The Cattery is my homage to Dr. Kinnear, who is now Vice Chancellor at Massey university in New Zealand.   

2.  However, near the Cattery is a sign that advertises NPR’s Science Friday, which has been broadcasting for the last few weeks from the Science School, my neighbor to the south.  The sign contains a landmark to the Science School Science Friday site and a link out to the Science Friday web site.   Sci Fri at the Sci School is attracting a lot of visitors, so I may be seeing some fallout from that terrific show.  Go Ira!

2.  The numbers of people in various parts of the tower seem to be similar, so people who get to the tower may actually visit all or most of its 20 odd floors! 

3.  The dihybrid test cross is seeing a lot of action this week.   This makes me happy, because my students are working on a linkage assignment there, and are actually spending a lot of time on the site.   YAY!

4.  The big cell on the Terrace gets a lot of attention.  I think people like to pop in and out of it.  I find it sort of energizing myself to get in there and hang out with the mitochondria. 

4.  Nobody loves my giant ribosomes.  I guess this means I need to finish the protein synthesis game!  Maybe the class would like to take this on as a project. 

Now that the sensors are laid out, I will report periodically on what seems to be attracting visitors. 

Dancing in the Dihybrids
September 22, 2007, 2:16 am
Filed under: Class Notes

Well, we’ve about finished our Mendelian Review, so next week we’ll be back in the RL Lab, doing PCR.  This week we did pedigree analysis in the Tower, and visited the Cattery to brush up on sex linked genes, and looked at linked and unlinked markers in the North Garden of the Abbey. 

As you can see, the students are becoming more adventurous with their avatars.   They’ve been given a small allowance and Landmarks for good freebie places and they’ve been shopping!

This week the speakers were installed in the computer lab, so we have sound.  Somebody dropped a nice music streamer off at genome recently, and I’ve set it up on the terrace, so the students can pick their own music.  Since there was nobody nearby to be disturbed by the unlablike sounds, we had dancing in the dihybrids, complete with rave sticks.  I love the ability to get outside the usual classroom mold in Second Life.

Lesson of the week:  only one student at a time can generate a big data set within the chat radius of 25M.  Otherwise the chat record gets muddled.  This means they have to check with one another before pushing the button!  Not a bad exercise in group cooperation. 

Sidewalks and Text Trails
September 21, 2007, 11:05 pm
Filed under: Class Notes

There has been much excitement about the advent of Voice in Second Life.  I have to admit that it’s fun to be able to sit around on the grass and actually converse, viva voce, with a few other avatars.

But I remain a big fan of text chat, which seems to have some special advantage for teaching at Second Life.  I saw just a few of them with the genetics class this week.  We were continuing to review Mendelian inheritance patterns, doing intermediate dominance, and the Mixollamas among other things. 

Since the experimental objects deliver data via the chat channel, the text record also is a raw data record.  Not only is the data recorded, it is time stamped, so in addition to being able to check data summaries against the raw data, I also get some idea about who is doing what when.  This is quite useful for understanding how students move around the island as they work. 

How they move around the island was one of my weekly AHA moments.  One of their tasks was to see how frequently specific patterns in the colors of the mixollamas emerged and also to see if any of the possible patterns might appear more frequently than others, or if all seemed to be equally probable.  The “main herd” of the mixollamas is around the apple tree near the gazebo in the Terrace area.  However, there is another gazebo down behind the Abbey, installed to make the east entrance to the Island a little more friendly looking.  Because I think the mixollamas are cute, I put a couple of them by that gazebo, nibbling on the grapes that climb the gazebo walls.  They have the same scripting as the main herd mixollamas, so they produce the same coat patterns with the same frequencies, BUT there was no instructional sign with those llamas.   In my mind, they weren’t part of the herd. 

Wrong!  A couple of the students saw those llamas behind the greenhouse and ran their experiments with them.  However, they didn’t have the instructions that live in the sign that explains the features of the main herd, including how to reset the counters that record the clicks!   Fortunately I was hovering,  so I could explain the resetting process and also put up another copy of the Mixollama sign.   

I have a certain picture of the navigational layout of Genome Island, that is,  the “natural” routes that people will follow as they move around.  There are sidewalks, stepping stones, lighting fixtures to mark the main routes.   And besides, the first thing everybody gets is a Guide to Genome that tells them where everything is.  But my mental map of Genome is,  like my posted office hours,  a snare and a delusion.   Students drop in and see me whenever they like.  They mostly don’t read the Guide.  They forge new paths around the island, and end up in unexpected places  Too bad they can’t leave wear patterns in the grass and tell me where the sidewalks — and maybe the llamas — SHOULD be!

But more about text.  After everybody had finished the intermediate dominance experiments, we gathered in the Abbey to discuss dominance and genotypes and predicted vs experimental ratios and good stuff like that.  We sat at that anachronistic glass table and chatted.  In text.  We could just have talked, since we were all in the same room, but I wanted to try an in-world chat, so we typed.   It was a slightly out-of-body experience, since there we all were, dumb as stones, and typing away.  But I discovered something interesting.  It’s extremely difficult to do the “articulated pause, ” like, you know, ummm, like, well, YOU know.  In text chat, YOU HAVE TO SAY SOMETHING!  You have to figure out what you are trying to say and say it.  It’s wonderful.   Long live the Chat Log.

Passing Notes and Spare Avatars
September 8, 2007, 8:04 pm
Filed under: Class Notes

Genome Island is an evolving project, and I’ve tried various ways for students to record and report on their experiences there.   All data goes into the Chat Record.  Where does it go from there?  I’ve tried several things:

  • Record the data on a notecard and drag or send it to me in world (via give inventory).
  • Record the data on a notecard and drag it into a student file in my Tower Office.
  • Record the data on a notecard and drag into into an analytical object like the Chi Square notebook. 
  • Copy and paste the data into an Excel File for summary and analysis.
  • Copy and paste the data into MS Word for reporting. 
  • Data summaries from Excel can also be copied into Word. 

After the students had used these various methods, we discussed the process and decided that we didn’t need to use all of them.  Since other course materials and student grades are kept on the WebCT, we decided that the simplest and least confusing method of reporting would be just to put the data directly into Excel and Word, and to upload the final Word reports to the WebCT Assignments section. 

ds_jr.jpgSince Second Life is at its most powerful for self-paced learning, I can post a Second Life Assignment to the WebCT, and the students can then complete it at their convenience, working either in splended isolation or it small groups.  If their reports come back to the same place, it closes the loop nicely, and I can then read and return comments on their work to the same place.  Then I can do followup discussions in class for any areas that emerge as tricky. 

I like moving back and forth between my university environment and the Second Life metaverse.  One of the things that Second Life does is to allow me to construct a representation of my own mental landscape, and invite students to come in and walk around there too.   

The second week  was not without technical difficulties.  One student was suddenly and inexplicably deprived of Chat.  She could write messages, which the other students and I could see, but she couldn’t see ours.  She also wasn’t getting the object chat that provides the data record, nor was she getting IMs.   The Second Life Help staff suggested some possible solutions, but the problem hadn’t been solved by the end of the week.  It was actually something they hadn’t encountered before, so I guess we’re ALL learning about this new environment. 

Fortunately, there was a spare avatar she could use.  I had created a new avatar to run through the orientation process with the students, and he was available.  I gave her his password and the use of him for as long as she needs him.   When her own avatar is working again, she can send him any inventory he has accumulated.  

First Class
August 30, 2007, 1:38 am
Filed under: Class Notes

Today my genetics class visited Second Life for the first time.  It was a landmark event for me, and especially since it was originally supposed to have happened last week.  However, the laboratory is scheduled on Wednesday, and we all know what Weird Wednesdays can bring.  Rescheduling this lab would lead to unfortunate domino effects in the biology, chemistry, math and physics schedules, so we’ll be playing Wednesday Roulette from time to time. 

But never mind about that.  It was the first time since last spring that my own students have been able to visit Genome Island, and the first time ever that they’ve been able to get in at the beginning of the term instead of at the very end.  I know that they will be teaching me a lot about how operations on the Island should be organized.  In a sense, even though Genome Island has been under development for over two years, it is still an untested hypothesis about how students learn in the immersive and interactive environment of Second Life. 

cv_tshirt.jpgWe had quite a rough orientation experience.  I dutifully went through the orientation process with a newly created avatar a few weeks ago so that I could anticipate what the students would be facing.  It was quick, smooth and uneventful.  Full of false confidence, I wrote up the lab handout, describing what they would encounter.  In addition to that, I had the well- organized newly created SciLands Orientation Walkway to help solidify the basic training of the Orientation Island.  I was READY!

Then Reality Struck!  We all found ourselves not only in different Orientation centers, but different from the one I have visited earlier and different from one another.  One student was unceremoniously dumped from her Orientation Island and moved to a watery nowhere.  I found the new places unsatisfactory, indeed nearly incomprehensible, and decided then to teleport the students to the SciLands Orientation Walkway.   We were all unable to teleport.  So finally I brought the students directly to Genome, thinking we could just fly over the short distance to the SciLands Orientation.  It was, alas, impenetrable, having been closed down for a tour of visitors.  

So I finally did what I probably should have done to begin with:  seated them all at the conference table in the Abbey and then went through a basic course of navigation, inventory management, avatar and costume adjustments and communications.  They had, in fact, also picked up a few skills in the course of our earlier bumbling, and were soon ready for the Great Genome Island Scavenger Hunt. 

The Scavenger Hunt is a method that other Second Life educators have found valuable for getting a class up and running quickly.  The students were given the “Guide to Genome” available at a click from the “What’s Here” sign associated with the teleport panels scattered around the island.  Then they were given a task list of snapshots, notecards, information and objects to collect from various places around the Island.  When a couple of the tasks proved confusing,  I checked the directions, set them on the right path and promptly rewrote the directions for next time. 

jr_dts-with-mixollama-herd.jpgWatching the students work confirmed earlier impressions about how this environment works best.  The students went through their task list in different orders, and were soon scattered all over the Island.  As they solved various bits of the puzzle, each of them became instant “experts” on the area they had visited and could pass their experience to others in the group.  I had seated them in pairs at the lab computers so that they could confer and help each other, but new groupings arose as they moved from task to task. 

In addition, Elizabeth Gloucester, who wrote the notecards for the Garden of Prokaryote Genomes, dropped in and met one of the students.  Since Elizabeth teaches at a medical school, and the student has her sights set on medical school, they were soon in a lively conversation, wonderfully illustrating the opportunities for connecting with the numerous interesting people who hang out in Second Life. 

It was a good day.  My plan had been to begin the orientation process with the morning class and then return in the early afternoon for the scavenger hunt.  I thought that the frustrations of the introduction might have left them all too ready for the noon break.  However several of the students decided just to stay in world and worked right through lunch.  Others took a short break and then returned to their computers to press on.  They showed incredible flexibility in the face of the glitches that can plague Second Life — closed regions, periods of lag, crashing computers, and all the rest of it.  I was very proud of them and also of the opportunity they have to learn in this new environment. 

As we continue through this year, I’ll be recording our First Class experiences, and will invite their comments as well.