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Genomics Digital Lab turns cell biology into a progressive learning world full of battle scenarios, puzzles, and races against time. ((Courtesy of Genomics Digital Lab))

Christian Schneider might seem like a typical adolescent who loves video games and little league baseball, but his top three games will reveal something very interesting about the 12-year-old.

While he has Pokemon Shoddy Battle and Fish Tycoon on the list, it's his third choice that might raise eyebrows. It's Genomics Digital Lab (GDL), an interactive online gaming program from Toronto-based Spongelab Interactive that was designed for high school and college-level biology and science students. What's unique about GDL is that it turns cell biology into a progressive learning world full of battle scenarios, puzzles, and races against time. In other words, it makes learning fun.

The fact that GDL is meant for users almost twice his age isn't a problem for Christian, since he's starting college courses this fall. And while he's not old enough to play adult-rated games, he can easily handle anything this senior level biology game throws at him, says his grandmother Carolynn Schneider, who lives in Glassboro, N.J.

"We've been exploring science sites since he was four and always looking for programs that are on par with his abilities," she says. "When I came across the description of this one, he absolutely adored it. He has learned so much about cell regeneration, how plants live and cell biology."

Cellular thinking

The credentials of the people who designed GDL are equally impressive.

Company president Jeremy Friedberg, for example, has a doctorate in molecular genetics and biotechnology. He talks about mitosis and meiosis as if they were an everyday topic of conversation at the dinner table.

'Teachers shouldn't have to be paying for educational assets. Anyone can access it. Even parents can play it with their kids.'—Jeremy Friedberg, GDL

The germination of the whole idea came during his studies when he realized complex cells comprise a 3D dynamic system that simply can't be taught easily in a two-dimensional setting. "When you try to distil that into a block of text, the subtleties and context are lost to the student."

He also recalls a time when a professor used Plasticine modeling for demonstrating chromosomes. "Taking us physically through the process had a profound impact," says Friedberg.

So he decided to teach himself animation and programming, and worked with Sheridan College's Visualization Design Institute to build a 3D cellular world called Cellscape Explorer.

From that project, Purdue University commissioned his services for a Genomics Explorer travelling exhibition in 2007. In true evolutionary fashion, those digital assets became the genesis of Genomics Digital Lab, the first commercial product to be launched by Spongelab Interactive.

Going forth and multiplying

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Christian Schneider, 12, is starting college courses this fall.

Within two years, the game took off in 65 countries, building a fan base of thousands of teachers, students and individuals with a love of advanced biology.

"We never expected that," he says.

The game has also won a number of awards, including a first place with the National Science Foundation for two years running. In 2009, it beat out a group of 22,000 e-learning applications to grab first place in e-Science at the United Nations World Summit Awards.

A key to GDL's success is the fact that it can be delivered via a web browser, so no matter how rich the content, it can be used in class, at home or anywhere else one might have access to the internet. A single user licence is $19.95 (teachers can buy a single licence and share it with students). Students can try it at home.

"We believed that if someone wants this, money should not be a barrier," Friedberg says. "Teachers shouldn't have to be paying for educational assets. Anyone can access it. Even parents can play it with their kids."

Racing against time

More importantly, the game adds some fun for students tackling some extremely advanced scientific processes.

GDL actually features eight integrated games: What Plants Need, Light Reaction, Calvin Cycle, Glycolysis, Citric Acid Cycle, Electron Transport Chain, Transcription, and Translation. There's also a 3D reference atlas called Anatomy Explorer that ties back to the game content.

A photosynthesis exercise within the Light Reaction Game, for example, works like a visual puzzle in which you fit the pieces to help a plant grow to generate energy. "You manage the plant under real world conditions, create scenarios and try something new if you fail. The mastery of the game solidifies the learning," Friedberg explains.

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GDL actually features eight integrated games, including light reaction seen here. ((Courtesy of Genomics Digital Lab))

The Transcription game helps students learn the aspects of expressing a gene. Spongelab has built a free arcade version called Transcription Hero where players can use a keyboard or guitar controller to play real DNA sequences (e.g. HIV) that can be imported from GenBank, the worldwide repository of all DNA sequences. Any mistakes and mutations occur, and it's game over.

"You're trying to beat the real enzyme," Friedberg explains. "The problem is you can't, because enzymes are so fast and resilient. But at least students get a real sense of how impressive molecular machines are, and understand why some DNA sequences are more difficult to transcribe than others."

The latest thing in the Spongelab gaming repertoire is the just-released History of Biology, a web-based scavenger hunt that explores the cultural history of biology. Friedberg likens it to "the Da Vinci Code" of biology. "One fact leads to another and you're using the internet to help drive the story."

Old school, new school

While everything Spongelab does might be seen as breakthrough stuff in the world of education, Friedberg says game-based learning goes back a number of years.

"The oldest games were flight simulators for training pilots. It's also used to train surgeons as a means to provide 'safe' environments to test scenarios."

Like other dynamic learning programs, Genomics Digital Lab is more useful as a tool because it illustrates dynamically what goes on in cells rather than standard textbooks, explains Edward Hitchcock, science teacher with Bayview Glen Upper School in Toronto. "A lot of instructional software is a series of little one-off animations and activities. This connects it all together."

He believes the gaming aspect is especially important for today's students, because these digital natives are very used to doing things that are entertaining.

"If you look at standard classroom practice, you learn something, get tested and move on," he says. "With games, if you don't succeed at a level you try again. It's not about testing. It's about learning to try to learn different things to achieve a goal."

Ultimately, sophisticated games such as GDL provide a way for learners to bridge the gap between complex studies and entertainment. In fact, when time permits, Hitchcock says he sometimes sets up a Transcription Hero challenge just for fun. "We had one student that was really quite good. He went into aerospace engineering."

In Christian Schneider's case, the gaming aspect is a huge plus, given that he also has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He says Genomics Digital Lab is one of the few things he can do for more than 15 minutes at a time. "Some days, I can't get off it," he says. "Once I learned how to play it, then it was super-fun. And it's way easier than textbooks."

Christian is also not daunted by the fact that Transcription Hero has yet to be conquered. "I didn't beat that one yet. But I will."