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DU establishes ‘science island’ in virtual world

Online visitors can attend science courses in a virtual lecture hall on DU's Second Life campus.

A team of University of Denver researchers is attracting some real money for their work in a virtual world.

Research professors Robert Amme and Zeev Shayer of DU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, working with research associate Jeff Corbin, are preparing to spend a $200,000 grant from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They’re developing a new way of conducting educational experiments in a three-dimensional online world called Second Life.

Second Life is a relatively new online phenomenon attracting millions of users. Internet participants create computer representations of themselves, called avatars, that walk, fly or drive around a series of islands and communities, interacting with other avatars.

Amme and Corbin bought virtual land inside Second Life and connected with scientists from around the world to create an archipelago of islands — called SciLands — dedicated to scientific research and education. On DU’s island, dubbed “The Science School,” the two recreated the University’s Olin Hall and Meyer-Womble Observatory.

Anyone in Second Life can “teleport” to DU’s island, wander through educational exhibits and take a look inside the observatory.

What Amme and others see is a new venue for holding virtual lectures that gather students in a classroom where they can see and interact with each other, even if they’re miles apart.

And since it’s a virtual world, Amme says it’s perfect for testing potentially hazardous substances, including radioactive material. Hence, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s interest.

Amme envisions helping students conduct experiments in radioactivity using programs that simulate how the material would actually behave in the physical world, without the risk to the environment or students.

John Hill, academic director of DU’s University College environmental policy and management program, believes in Second Life’s potential. About 80 percent of his students take classes online, far from real world laboratories.

“It’s not enough just to read about it. We want to give them some real practical, hands-on experience using Second Life,” Hill says.

Most of the grant money will go to course development and staffing, Amme says. Eventually, he says, the work in Second Life will be paid for by tuition, like other Internet distance learning programs.

Senior scientist Paul Doherty at San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum is a Second Life believer who is encouraging DU’s venture into education in the virtual world. Second Life, he says, is a hint at what the Web of the future will look like.

“If you want to be involved in the future of the Web, you have to be involved in Second Life now,” Doherty says.

“It’s really up to one’s imagination as to how they use this platform,” Corbin says. “It’s a creative adventure that is rather limitless.”

You can get a glimpse of Second Life without actually going inside at Or, to visit DU in the virtual world, join Second Life for free at Inside, search for “Science School.”

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