University grant will help fund virtual science lab

The virtual worlds transport students inside cells, helping them learn complex biology.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a two-year, $1.08 million competitive grant award to Dr. Brian Slator, a North Dakota State University computer science professor, for his faculty start-up venture known as WoWiWe (pronounced Wow’ ee) Instruction Co. The group develops internet-based educational software.

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant through NIH’s National Center for Research Resources will be used to develop a multi-user virtual biology environment for discovery-oriented science education. The award includes $369,276 for NDSU’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education, led by Dr. Donald Schwert, professor of geosciences.

While Hollywood film crews create blockbusters with Academy Award-winning animation software, a team of researchers at NDSU develops software that creates virtual worlds to teach science. For a generation of students whose daily existence is tethered to the internet, the World Wide Web Instructional Committee at NDSU has developed unique methods to reach them. Slator established the WoWiWe research start-up company to commercialize educational simulation games developed by NDSU’s World Wide Web Instructional Committee.

The virtual worlds created by these educational software developers transport students inside cells, helping them learn complex biology. Students seamlessly enter a virtual world to become scientists: performing experiments, interacting with the world and with each other, applying the scientific method. “This approach represents the notion of learning by doing,” explains Slator. “You are having experiences in the role of a scientist.”

The grant award will make it possible for Slator and his team to produce educational software that helps students grasp complex biological concepts. The resulting software products will be targeted toward parents and high school students who want to better prepare for college-level science courses. Brad Vender, who received his master’s degree in computer science from NDSU, serves as principal investigator on the grant award.

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