Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Two New Google Apps Worth Checking Out

I told the science and English/history teachers I work with about these two new apps from GoogleLabs. Now I imagine they are spending their vacations browsing the human body and published word usage history, respectively. The first is the Google Body Browser. Think Google Earth for the human body. Truly amazing! For it to work you have to download the beta version of Google Chrome. The other is Google Ngram Viewer. This lets you enter a word or collection of words and search the entirety of what Google Books has scanned and made public to give you a graph showing their occurrences over time. If you enter more than one word the graphs are shown together so you can compare. It's an amazing tool for English, history, and even math. Really any discipline if you want to see how certain domain-specific terms have changed in importance over time.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How do kids visualize science?

 My 7th grade students are building models of microscopic things they are studying in science class in our sim. The science teachers said they briefly cover many topics and don't have time to explore cell division, elements, compounds, photosynthesis, and nucleic acids in depth. So I thought it would be helpful for the students to make 3D models of these things to have a more vivid mental model of them when they come back to studying them more in depth later on.
 All I did is show them how to build. They had to find images and build 3D models that made sense to them since I'm no science teacher. Now what surprised me is that some of them reproduced 2D representations in this 3D environment. I assumed they would be able to imagine a 3D version of the pictures they were looking at but in many cases they couldn't take that leap.
 So it seems to represent a developmental snapshot of sorts in terms of their ability or lack of ability to visualize these abstract things they are learning about. As I told the science teachers, I'm not sure there is anything we should do about this. It could be that as they continue to study these topics they should make new models that reflect their deeper understanding, including what these things look like in 3D space.

Friday, December 03, 2010

To Sim or Not To Sim

I know, silly title. Here’s my main question: Are virtual worlds effective environments for the presentation of dramatic arts? Maybe some genres are more appropriate than others?
The reason I’m asking is I presented a short video of two students' inworld performance of a scene from Approaching Zanzibar. Here's the vid. Part of the dialog is about fears the characters have about visiting an aunt who is sick with cancer. To my horror the whole auditorium of 4-8 graders reacted with laughter during some of the most sobering and serious lines. I’m sure this was in part a way to relieve anxiety about a heavy subject. But I also believe it had to do with the content being delivered by awkward-looking cartoony figures. This leads me to think we really shouldn’t be trying to present serious dramatic material in this format. Kids this age have never even seen anything like this. Their closest point of reference is probably video games. If a performance with any emotional gravity comes across as goofy, funny, or unconvincing this might be the wrong medium for those kinds of dramatic experiences.
On the other hand there are dramatic genres that seem like they would lend themselves well to the fantastical possibilities of virtual environments. I would have liked to show the Alice in Wonderland scene but the FreeSWITCH service that's been so dependable kept dropping Alice’s voice during their performance for some inexplicable reason.

The Peter Pan scene might have been good, too, with Peter flying onstage and having trouble getting his shadow to attach properly. But I was kind of smitten with the local light effect and wanted the kids to see it. It's like that with virtual worlds. The magic of it is hard to explain to people. They have to see it for themselves, have the experience.

So what kind of dramatic performances are VWs good for? Now I'm thinking material that takes advantage of the special capabilities of the platform--the ability to fly, script objects to do unexpected and magical things, the ability to make amazing, gravity-defying costumes, the ability to appear and disappear magically (teleport). In our Aesop's Fable of The Frogs Desiring a King Jupiter was able to throw down a huge log onto the stage out of thin air. That was a surprising, fun experience and in that world it also made sense. It just added to the magic the kids watched unfolding in front of them.
I don't think serious drama should be avoided altogether in VWs. The drama teacher I do this with put it well when he said one of the best things about it for him as a drama teacher is it forces the students to treat dramatic devices--tone of voice, gesture, movement--more consciously since they have to do it from a distance through the narrow parameters of the avatar. They can't fall back on their own default expressions like they can in RL. So I still think it's an effective tool for students to learn more about all genres of dramatic performance. I just don't think all genres in this medium need to have an audience.