Creating Active Learning Environments

Perhaps the most important point that underlies the educational software built at ILS is that by applying a little creativity we can convert what might seem like inherently passive learning situations into active ones. The challenge is to figure out how to find active learning regardless of the situation. A new opportunity of this sort arose in a project designed for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The museum was interested in teaching visitors about sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder found predominantly in people of African descent. Rather than merely designing a passive display featuring animation or a quiz, we decided to take a different tack and build an active "workbench." Our approach was to train the museum visitors to be genetic counselors.

Now, of course, the visitors to the museum have no intention of becoming genetic counselors. But by presenting them with a challenging problem, we could capture their natural motivation to learn. Users advise a couple who are worried about having children because they suspect their children may be at risk for sickle cell.

The interaction in Sickle Cell Counselor is organized around a simulation that provides four activities: 1) asking experts, 2) doing lab tests, 3) calculating risks, and 4) advising the clients. Each activity is available to be visited and revisited, in whatever sequence the user desires. The program provides visitors with access via video to experts with whom the visitors may have simulated conversations. Four human experts offer videotaped advice:

A simulated blood lab is available because an important step in determining clients' risk factors is identifying their hemoglobin types. The blood lab gives the user a chance to draw samples from each client, view them under a microscope, and perform a conclusive lab test. Users can see what red cells (both healthy and sickled) look like and can identify hemoglobin types by their differing electrical properties. The user's goal, though, isn't to "learn about red cells and hemoglobin," but to identify the clients' gene types. It is only through pursuing this goal that a user acquires some level of understanding of these concepts.

Next Story Sickle Cell: Making Science Fun

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