Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Computer animation and learning

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then what of a multi-million pixel, 3D ray-tracing representation? hah!

Well, anyway, one of the aims of this blog is to spread awareness of a range of technologies that can be used in higher education. Whilst school-teachers in Britain are currently campaigning to ban YouTube (I kid you not - but only one of the tiny unions, so far), others are using it to great effect to share materials. One nice example, is the video produced by XVIVO on the 'inner life of a cell'. The YouTube version is of course not full quality, but has the nice aspect that it can be embedded in your web (or Blackboard) pages, as below, and is a nice way of distributing such materials to students. Have a search also for other relevant materials and try your best to avoid the movies of people falling over and cats sleeping in strange places, unless of course you like that sort of thing....


Sharon said...

From the site, David Bolinsky of XVIVO gives a talk on this animation and how it was developed for Harvard medical students.

The animation is stunning. It almost makes me wish I'd studied Biology.

Iain said...

surely that's going too far! Hah. Still, many biology students havent seen this type of thing either, yet, I suppose. Took a lot of effort to produce and no doubt is costly, but would be great to have more of these available across a range of subjects.

andrew said...

Hmm ...

There are actually quite a lot of these animations out there. In fact, most of the leading molecular biology texts have literally man years of illustrator time lavished on them. For an example, the CD-ROM with each copy of the "Molecular Biology of the Cell" textbook by Alberts et al (in the library) probably has a good 20 or more.

The BBC and Open University made a whole series of educational video segments about the "Cell City" a few years back. It's a terrible shame but I don't think these are freely available.

For eye candy, another really nicely rendered animation is about RNA interference technology (Nobel prize 2006) available at the scientific journal Nature:

Or to see a protein in atomic action, there's an award-winning one of an 'aquaporin' water channel (Nobel prize 2003):
('Download deatiled movie ...' in 'Art of Water Transport ...' section)

I use both of the above along with a number of others in various lectures, and I think many of my colleagues do as well. There is probably even room for a small workshop on the best ways to do this :-)

andrew said...

Although these animations are great as overviews and motivators, teaching problems start to creep in with the oversimplifications. Take three examples in this Bolinsky movie:

Firstly, 'lipid rafts' at the beginning are actually a quite hotly debated hypothesis, and it's not clear how central their role in the functions portrayed really is. This is dangerous when hypotheses get into textbooks so clearly and start to become dogma.

'Kinesins like the UPS man' does nicely show the cargo transport, but this gets taken slightly too far as an image for students. It could easily mislead them because actually it's thought that multiple motors must work together. The real biochemical 'truth and beauty' is in how several molecular motors can couple together to do meaningful work. It's not clear how this operates even to the aficionados. Contrast with automotive engineering - it is much simpler to have one bigger engine for a truck than to couple several car engines together.

Finally, 'conformational change enables ...' as used to explain some processes towards the end of the movie is a nebulous and somewhat discredited term in biochemistry. It is insufficient as an explanation because it's like saying "cooking makes food edible". There so many assumptions and generalisations that it isn't actually very meaningful, so I would usually try to avoid encouraging students to use the term.

andrew said...

The final small point that interested me in the Bolinsky movie and talk were the cultural elements.

Firstly, there is a nanobiotechnology theme (eg all the 'molecular motors' talk) which is seen a lot in US popular science but maybe less so in Europe. Arguably we focus more on genetic aspects.

Secondly, I felt there was a subtle flavouring with the 'wonder of nature' being promoted to counter intelligent design people using this for their own purposes. US researchers and science teachers seem to be much more exposed to and more sensitive about the evolution v creationalism debate.

Iain said...

You're right about the CDROMs, and not just in biology. Needless to say in my own original subject of astrophysics, there are many impressive animations of the formation of structure in the universe, stellar evolution etc. I guess the point here is just that it would be great if such materials could be more widely available instead of locked into a CDROM or a publisher's website that requires a fee/subscription. I know they have to pay the costs of production, but it would be good to see more more public domain or creative commons materials.

The BBC of course experimented with making their content publicly available (in the UK only) and editable for schools, teachers and individuals to play around with, as part of the BBC Jam project, but this was shelved a couple of months back by the government after lobbying by private content producers/publishers! That says a lot and is more than just a pity. Huge amounts of materials paid form from the public purse being locked up to keep afloat private companies that are notorious for over-pricing.

Back to this example. Yes, the details of this animation and some others of its ilk have been commented on by others in terms of inaccuracies and simplifications. Again, a positive aspect of web technologies that critiques appear alongside content.