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Spongelab: gaming the art of science education

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“What famous painting does this remind you of?”

© Spongelab Interactive

I was sitting in the offices of Spongelab Interactive about a month ago speaking with  Jeremy Friedberg, molecular genetics and biotechnology professor, now science education game-guru, and we were discussing the interactive opening image of History of Biology, an expansive mystery game. The image in question, above, contains a large number of portraits.  The first I recognized is Charles Darwin in the center.  He draws you in and makes you peer at the others. (Click this link to see the image much larger). But despite the deep perspective delineated by the building, I couldn’t tell what painting this was inspired from.

Jeremy showed me a number of the original ideas behind this game.  In the story, you must find clues to what a missing biologist was working on, and in doing so will go to websites based on clues – and some of those are websites at real research institutions, who have agreed to host hidden pages relevant to the game that propel you forward.  It’s a blend of cinematic art and interactive riddles that leads you to real institutions.

History of Biology trailer:

 

It’s no secret to illustrators that some of the best work to be undertaken these days is in video game concept art.  It’s fast paced, requires tremendous research and inspiration even for fictional sf and fantasy. It has twin challenges: illustrators need to be enticingly creative and  part of a team vision. The video game industry in North American remained unaffected longer than many other industries by the last recession.  Playing games and viewing art both release dopamine in your system, making those engaged in them feel good.  The entertainment value of games is not in dispute, but their educational value often is. What Spongelab Interactive seeks to do do is nothing less than game-ify science education – for students, for teachers and even for artist-contributors.

 

Unlabelled plant structure, © Spongelab Interactive

 

The main purpose of Spongelab’s site is for teachers and students to sign up and collect and organize scientific resources, everything from scientific illustrations of  plant structures like the one above, to physics-based games about gravity and acceleration.  Every resource you explore, every image you organize into your lesson-planning account earns you points to unlock bonus resources. And it’s all free. One high school science teacher I introduced to the site excitedly said, “This is what we need: 21st-century learning!”  Teachers can organize images, videos and games into lesson plans, right on the Spongelab site, and then track students’ progress through the curriculum. The resources are even linked to standard classroom textbooks.

And this is what I discovered at Spongelab: cutting edge education, beautiful professional scientific illustrations, and a commitment to a kind of open-source learning that doesn’t hide behind paywalls. All wrapped up in the understanding that if games engage people, then gaming the Spongelab resources will help engage learning.

Nervous System, side view, © Spongelab Interactive. The images I'm using in this post are available from Spongelab for free to students, educators and self-directed learners.

The SpongeLab offices are decorated with large framed anatomy posters, that had a look of age about them.  Jeremy confirmed this, saying they were used in the Toronto District School Board about 30 years ago when we both would have been in grade school. This link to history, not only to the scientific subject matter, but to the educational roots is apropos of Spongelab’s efforts.

What about the art?  The commissioned illustrations on Spongelab’s site do not list each illustrator, which is not uncommon for for some types of projects.  However, the gaming nature of Spongelab actually includes the illustrations as well.  Scientific illustrators interested in contributing to the site can actually upload images to Spongelab, and are paid a rate determined by how many of the Spongelab community members visit and use the image. There’s a page outlining this ambitious idea here.

Cropped from the pdf describing a possible contribution an illustrator can make to Spongelab, while earning some money based on usage.

This idea is potentially revolutionary.  Up-and-coming and seasoned biomedical & scientific illustrators alike may wish to take full advantage of this.  It’s an idea for distributing paid science illustrations I’ve never heard of before, firmly embedded in the social and gaming culture of the internet, almost completely divorced from the print model.  It’s immediately apparent from the layout of the Spongelab site that illustrations are not a second thought, open source, tossed in there for embellishment element to the information present.  Images are the media that the games and information are presented by.  During our discussion, it was apparent Jeremy clearly understands the power of a good, accurate image, and the limitations of metaphors that scientific illustrators often employ.

Game-based learning for students; organized resource accumulation for educators; and paid per use imagery for illustrators – Spongelab Interactive is on the nano-knife edge of a revolution in what should be expected from education.

I realize in this post I still haven’t answered Jeremy’s little game for me, testing my art history recall ability. What is the interactive-image from History of Biology based on?

“‘The School of Athens‘ by Raphael,” Jeremy tells me with a smile.

The School of Athens by Raphael.

Both images show groups of learned people from history standing together in imagined conversation, in some cases with others who the decades would have kept separate through life and death. In the case of Raphael’s fresco, Greek and Roman scholars converse in a church-structured hall, with Plato and Aristotle in the center.

History of Biology shows Charles Darwin, alone in the centre of the biological tempest as was his shy nature,  surrounded by small groups of other naturalists and scientists important to our current understanding. True to the nature of Spongelab, identifying each figure by their stance and personality (and by the conversation they’re having when you click on them) isn’t just for the fun of the puzzle: correct identification of everyone present enters teachers in a draw to win a free school-wide licence for the game.

1-up for science education.

- -

Soak up some links (if you thought you were getting through this post without sponge-related humour, you were wrong.)

 

 

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at www.glendonmellow.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ajcarpy2005 6:09 pm 09/12/2011

    AWESOME!

    More of the education system needs to start using tech like this!

    Link to this
  2. 2. easternblot 4:39 am 09/13/2011

    Hi Glendon, great post! I’d seen a bit of what Spongelab does before, because the Node has a post by Nicole, an employee of Spongelab, as part of our alternative careers series: http://thenode.biologists.com/educational-game-designer/
    (It was probably my personal favourite of the jobs we featured, other than my own…)

    It’s also included in this article in Development that came out last week: http://dev.biologists.org/content/138/19/4107.full

    Link to this
  3. 3. Glendon Mellow 9:09 am 09/13/2011

    Hi Eva! Thanks for the links, I hadn’t read those stories before! It does seem like an amazing place to work.

    Link to this
  4. 4. CM doran 11:44 am 09/13/2011

    Wow! I immediately saw Rene Magritte’s men with bowlers before I saw the enlarged view..this came at an interesting time…thank you for writing.

    Link to this

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