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Friday, February 19, 2010

Canadians win the NSF 2009 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge

2009 Visualization Challenge: Interactive Media
Science and the National Science Foundation announce the winner in the interactive media category in the 2009 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge.

First-Place Winner - Genomics Digital Lab: Cell Biology

Video games allow players to rock out like Jimi Hendrix or hurl touchdown passes like Peyton Manning. In this interactive media entry, they can turn sunlight into electrons and convert sugar into energy like a plant cell. Jeremy Friedberg and his team at Spongelab Interactive in Toronto, Canada, designed this Web-based game to teach high school students about the intricate cycles and pathways that keep the cell alive by generating and burning energy.

At the start of each game, the camera zooms into the cross section of a leaf and focuses on a glowing cell. Then the students must play the role of that cell, building and maintaining its cycles and pathways to score energy points. In one game, players have to manage glycolysis, the pathway that breaks down the sugar glucose, by shooting enzymes at molecules marching on tracks to convert them into new chemicals that the cell can use. The final games focus on transcribing genes and synthesizing proteins—processes on which cells spend much of their energy. Similar to Guitar Hero, players transcribing a gene must hit the appropriate RNA base letter as the DNA template scrolls down the screen. Too many mistakes and the cell becomes sick.

Games can be important educational tools that go beyond rote memorization, Freidberg says. "I want to know if my students can think critically and be creative and figure out ways through problems," he says. "That's what games can do: They can create scenarios that make students problem-solve."

The judges "were impressed with the incredible attention to detail and accurate representation of cell structures ... as well as the use of story lines to draw in and sustain the users' attention," says panel of judges member Tierney Thys. "My only wish is that I'd had more time to play it!"

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