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Rozeanne Steckler
Michael Bailey

Envision, Explore, and Engage in Science
with a Computational Perspective




I magine a sixth-grade student intensely scrutinizing a rotating, 3-D image of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood. He is able to apply what he sees to the text that he is required to learn. The text by itself may seem nothing more than a dense maze of words. But, with a computer-enhanced lesson plan, he controls images of this protein at work. Through sight and sound, the student begins to understand the cooperative binding of oxygen by hemoglobin in the lungs, from where it is then transported through the blood stream to various tissues. Students in grades 6-9 can now experience and understand science this way through such an online educational unit--the new, EOT-PACI-funded CD-ROM and Web site called EnVision Explore Engage.

Figure 1. Exploration of Science
The EnVision Explore Engage home page is set against the backdrop of an Orion Nebula visualization created as part of the Digital Galaxy collaboration between SDSC and the Hayden Planetarium in New York. The home page links to a central Computational Science module and four NPACI thrust areas.
Figure 2. The S.S. Hemoglobin
An interactive game that represents how oxygen is transported through the system. The boat represents hemoglobin that gets loaded at Port Lung with oxygen and sails to Port Cell where it exchanges the oxygen for carbon dioxide.

SDSC has created a new method of teaching middle-school students the tools of computational science and its significance in the scientific world. Created by SDSC senior scientist Rozeanne Steckler and her colleagues, EnVision Explore Engage is an interactive Web and CD-ROM-based counterpart to enVision, the quarterly science magazine of NPACI and SDSC. The Web site and CD-ROM will allow students to explore scientific disciplines from NPACI's thrust areas in familiar terms. With a launch date of November 2000, EnVision Explore Engage is being developed as a means of attaining the NPACI goal of making science comprehensible to young students. The subjects studied in the first year will include molecular science, computational science, and neuroscience. The computational science unit will include a virtual tour of SDSC.

The project began as an idea to transform the research of the NPACI thrust areas into language suitable for a student audience. The mission of the EnVision Explore Engage project is to make students aware of the power of computational science. "The teachers with whom I collaborate expressed a need for the research subjects to be approachable by middle- and high-school students," Steckler said. "The NPACI research publication, enVision, summarizes research that is of interest to K-12 teachers, but the format is not easily applicable in their classrooms. Our Web site translates the research into curriculum usable in the classroom."

The lessons are aligned with national standards in science and are developed through collaboration between educators and scientists. The research team determines the nature of research best suited for a younger audience; the teachers then write the curriculum on the basis of this suggested material. The result is an integrated science educational unit that creates an interactive learning experience for middle-school students.


The EnVision Explore Engage curriculum is divided into separate units for middle school education. The first available will be the molecular science unit, followed by computer science. The neuroscience, Earth science, and engineering segments are expected to appear throughout 2001. The program guides the student through games and simulations designed to teach science using an entertaining format. The home page consists of a rotating icon displaying each curriculum unit. Each area of emphasis branches from the central subject, computational science (Figure 1).

"An important idea behind the project is that the simulations are controlled by the students," Steckler said. "This gives them full maneuverability, which facilitates learning." For instance, a click on the molecular science link brings the student to Oxy and Gen, the personalized, talking "dioxygen twins" that serve as guides through this portion of the program. The function of the hemoglobin molecule is explained via a ship onto which the student may unload oxygen from the lungs for transport to the cells (Figure 2). Next, carbon dioxide is loaded onto the ship and transported from cells to the lungs. Through this type of interactive, visual simulation, the student can learn about science visually, audibly, and kinetically.

"We've designed the program either for individual, hands-on learning or as a teacher-guided activity," Steckler said. "It can function as a class activity, allowing the teacher to lead discussions and ask questions. While some students are on the computers, others can work on the provided companion activities for which a computer is not needed." The project includes guides for teachers and parents and curriculum activities for use in class or after-school science programs.

Laboratory reports are included, as well as subject-specific journals and a workbook on concept mapping. "Students need to think about what these exercises mean as they do them," Steckler said. "They don't always understand why things are occurring. Teachers are needed to ensure this understanding."

EnVision Explore Engage has been developed as an interactive CD-ROM and Web site. Use of the program is free, and the hybrid (Mac/PC) CD-ROM format is offered to accommodate teachers without high-speed access to the Web or who would prefer the material in CD form. The CD contains an adjustable audio track, making it more accessible to foreign students just learning English.

Figure 3. Interactive Gas Generation Lab
In this lab, students generate carbon dioxide and oxygen in two separate experiments and then experiment with how these gases react to very hot materials.
Figure 4. Blood, The Great Waterway of Life
Students are taken on an animated 30-second journey down an artery following the path of red and white blood cells.


In creating the EnVision Explore Engage project, Steckler collaborated with educators Anna O'Neil and Danine Ezell. "Considering some of the textbooks that are used to teach science, it's no wonder young people are perplexed by the subject," said O'Neil, an award-winning high-school teacher who is leading the development of the molecular science curriculum portion of the project. "They are taught numbers and formulas, with no point of reference. The material needs to be translated into understandable terms." Ezell, a middle-school teacher at the UC San Diego Preuss School, is writing the curriculum for the neuroscience unit.

O'Neil, an SDSC Science Scholars mentor and former Supercomputer Teacher Enhancement Program (STEP) participant, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Mexico and has teamed with Steckler on several educational projects. In 1998, O'Neil received an award for most educational project for her poster at the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) conference. The project's goal was to develop experimental protocols and a baseline for future studies as a Web-based lesson module to be used by other educators and students. O'Neil's earlier curriculum work and ideas have been influential in the development of EnVision Explore Engage.

In addition to the educators who contribute the content and design of the teaching curriculum, a team of multimedia programmers is developing the Web site. "We each work on individual parts," said Mesa College student Apryl Bailey, a graphic designer for the project. "I am creating the interface and structure of the program. We try to create from the user's point of view. The molecular science module is composed of a virtual laboratory, and upon entering, the student finds himself in a lobby. He advances through the lessons via the 'scale-o-vator,' a virtual, shrinking elevator, stopping at three differently sized worlds that contain interactive science games and hands-on activities" (Figures 3 and 4). Programmers Ann Bowen, Zack Schuman, and Mark Hartwell created the individual activities found on each floor.

Bowen's role is to program and script the interactive science activities. "I help to create the interactive multimedia content," she said. "We try to think of ways to portray science as simple and appealing to younger people." A graduate student at SDSU in computational science, Bowen also serves as an advisor for the science content of the program. "We really make a good team," she said. "Zack and Apryl are such talented artists. We put our skills together to make visually stimulating activities that can lure kids into learning."

"Each member of the development team has definitely added personality to the project," Steckler said. "The ideas from everyone have jelled together. The whole process has been very much a group effort."


EnVision Explore Engage is Steckler's most recent endeavor as part of NPACI's Education, Outreach, and Training (EOT) efforts. The EOT thrust area is focused on advancing understanding and appreciation of computational science and high-performance computing so that all citizens are able to benefit from these tools.

Steckler has long made an ambitious effort to make science accessible to young people in all sectors of society. In 1989, she and fellow SDSC scientist Mike Bailey created the Science Enrichment programs, a joint outreach venture with the San Diego-Imperial Council of Girl Scouts that has proved successful enough to be steadily expanded over the years.

The goal of alternative means of distributing curriculum, such as the Web-based EnVision Explore Engage, is not only to increase scientific awareness and knowledge, but also to sustain interest by making the activities accessible and entertaining.

"I think part of the reason many young people find science unapproachable is the way it is typically taught," Steckler said. "Many students experience difficulties because its relevance is not well explained. EnVision Explore Engage shifts the learning experience from passive to very interactive. Students do their own simulations and learn how to use computational science." --NB *