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Apps to Explore the Brain

22 October 2012 Written by  Julie Kiefer
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Apps to Explore the Brain Benedict Campbell, Wellcome Images

Is reading from a standard textbook the best way to learn how the eye works? “The pupillary light reflex is a reflex that controls the diameter of the pupil, in response to the intensity (luminance) of light that falls on the retina of the eye…”

Betting that middle and high school students would instead choose a video game-like experience, the Genetic Science Learning Center (GSLC) at the University of Utah is creating the Neuroscience of Our Senses, animated, interactive teaching modules for touch pad devices and interactive white boards. The project is backed by a $1.33 Million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The idea is that students will learn better through a virtual experience. After flipping on a simulated light switch, a student watches her avatar’s pupils shrink. With the flick of a finger, she zooms in to see the anatomy of the eye, and how the surrounding iris controls pupil size. What happens if the student makes the pupils stay large when the light comes on? The avatar squints – it’s too bright.

“One of the powers of animated interactive materials is that they help students see the processes of biology in ways that you can't in a static textbook illustration,” explains GSLC director Louisa Stark, Ph.D. The center has won national awards for their popular interactive Learn.Genetics website, which receives 1 million unique visitors each month.

Teaching with interactive technologies is a growing trend in K-12 classrooms. According to Futuresource Consulting, one in five classrooms worldwide will have interactive whiteboards by the end of 2013. Because of the Smart School Technology Act, passed by the Utah Legislature in 2012,  $3 Million has been committed toward implementing a school-wide technology infrastructure, and purchasing iPads for every student in a handful of public schools. Depending on the success of this pilot program, the state may increase its investment to bring education technologies to public schools across Utah.

“Virtual materials offer a lot of tools and experiences that students can't get within the confines of a classroom, either because of money or time,” said Elizabeth Moritz, science teacher at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education who uses an interactive whiteboard for teaching. “It is one of many excellent ways to enrich a student's learning.”

Also setting it apart from typical textbook science, the interactive lessons fold in current research and new technologies. Jessica Dwyer, science teacher at East High School in Salt Lake City, thinks this approach is important. “The only way kids can truly understand the science is if they can get access to methodology and technology that is current and applied.”

Stark says it is critical to develop the project in collaboration with scientists who have first-hand knowledge of the latest developments in brain research. University of Utah neuroscientist Matt Wachowiak agrees, “As scientists we can convey to them what is exciting and fascinating about how the brain works, and highlight the important questions being pursued in neuroscience research today.” Wachowiak worked with the GSLC this past summer, introducing new research findings that could be integrated into the curriculum.

Upon completion in 2013, the teaching modules will be presented in workshops to over 850 school teachers across the country, and released as freely downloadable apps to the general public.

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