Virtual Learning

Drexel University professor Jean-Claude Bradley brings Second Life to his chemistry classroom.

By Eleanor Goldberg | December 27, 2008
Students solve chemical problems and take quizzes in Second Life

Students solve chemical problems and take quizzes in Second Life.

Second Life/Jean-Claude Bradley

He’s not a superhero, but Jean-Claude Bradley does have an alter ego. If you met the mild-mannered Drexel University chemistry professor in person, you’d never guess that he lives another life as Horace Moody, who walks among three-dimensional periodic tables, flies around magic-carpet–style on giant molecular models, and instantly teleports from his Drexel University classroom to international parties hosted by the American Chemical Society. Horace Moody lives in Second Life, a virtual online world begun in 2003 that is quickly emerging as a leading communications tool.

After a quick download of free software, users (called residents) create personas (called avatars, like Horace Moody) with distinct personalities and appearances, and in this form they enter a virtual world populated by fellow residents, universities, businesses, and nonprofits. As with such Internet browsers as Internet Explorer or Firefox, residents can use Second Life to form online networks with like-minded enthusiasts, fellow professionals, scholarly peers, and institutions. But while traditional Web browsers offer written, audio, and two-dimensional visual content, Second Life simulates a three-dimensional, geographic world through which avatars travel; the setting offers new opportunities for imaginative thinking and shared learning.

As it has for many educators, Second Life has dramatically altered and enhanced Bradley’s teaching and learning experience. Through Second Life, he can help students think and interact in ways that are not possible in a classroom or laboratory setting. And for Bradley, one of the greatest strengths of Second Life is the opportunities that arise for networking. While working on projects, Bradley’s students meet up with other students from around the world as well as practicing chemists who put the principles that they are learning to use in their day-to-day jobs. Not only does this enhance his students’ learning experience, it just might put them in touch with a future employer, mentor, or friend.

In April 2008, at LISE 8, CHF’s eighth meeting of the Leadership Initiative in Science Education, Bradley shared his experiences and thoughts about how he uses Second Life to teach chemistry. Chemical Heritage editor Eleanor Goldberg caught up with him to investigate ways that teachers new to Second Life might get started.

EG: What makes Second Life a unique and useful tool for teaching science?

JCB: Second Life’s immersive environment allows for three-dimensional representations of objects, and it creates a more personal interaction compared with other electronic communication tools such as e-mail or simple chat.

EG: What do students get out of using Second Life that they cannot get from a traditional classroom or laboratory environment?

JCB: Students are able to build objects that would be impossible in real life. For example, they can build 3-D molecular models that are much larger than their bodies. And, Second Life gives students who are not present in the face-to-face class an opportunity to interact with the other students. Because there is a wealth of resources already in several areas in Second Life, students can bond in much richer ways. For example, one term students found some Star Wars artifacts near our chemistry area and were playing with them. As long as play does not overtake the time spent on class material I think it is a very positive thing.

EG: How does the networking aspect of Second Life enhance your students’ education?

JCB: Just as in real life, like-minded people find themselves in proximity because they are attracted by the same content. Educational islands like Drexel Island, Nature’s islands, and the American Chemical Society island have a tendency to attract teachers, students, scientists, and science writers. I think it is never too early for young scientists to start meeting individuals in their field of study.

EG: What is the best way for educators with little technical expertise or support to get started using Second Life?

JCB: An excellent way to get started in Second Life as an educator is to find others who are already using the technology in a similar area and have them provide a tour. Educators on Second Life are generally very helpful in this regard and will show the novice only the set of tools that they need to operate. New users who attempt to navigate Second Life for the first time without such assistance often find the experience confusing.

EG: How has using Second Life enhanced your development as an instructor?

JCB: Second Life has really enhanced my relationship with students who choose to participate in projects. I got to know some students in a much better way than if I had not used the technology to teach my class. In fact, last term I was so impressed with one student’s proactive attitude toward her project and willingness to help her fellow students that I offered to write her a letter of recommendation. This was an academically good but quiet student in real life whose personality really shone through in the virtual environment.

EG: What does Second Life offer for those interested in chemistry, and the history and social studies of chemistry, who are not teachers or students?

JCB: Second Life has many exhibits related to science that are intended for a general audience. Although the exhibits themselves may be interesting and illuminating, perhaps a greater benefit is the likelihood of meeting others with similar interests at these locations.

Science Tourism

Check in with like-minded scientists, educators, and students around the world at these science-oriented locations in Second Life:

ACS Island: hosted by the American Chemical Society, offering virtual conferences, parties, poster sessions, and museum exhibits.

The Tech: the island hub of the Tech Museum of Innovation, inviting visitors to create exhibits for its online exhibition.

Dinosaurs Park: an experience based on the book Jurassic Park.

Second Nature: hosted by the Nature publishing group, featuring online interactive exhibits and networking opportunities for science-minded institutions, professionals, and educators.

Biomedicine Research Labs: hosted by the Sbarro Health Research Organization, including reproductions of real biomedical laboratories.

Chemistry Corner: an exhibit of chemistry displays on Drexel University Island.

Energy Paths: exhibits about energy sources and sustainability, hosted by Commonwealth Island, a free space for progressive organizations to share information.

Nanotechnology Island: Second Life’s hub for nanoscience and nanotechnology, sponsored by the National Physical Laboratory in the United Kingdom.

Science Friday Island: home of Ira Flatow’s weekly National Public Radio broadcast.