Category Archives: Science

Virtually Science

poster-1663612_640Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are potentially disruptive technologies. They will change how we are entertained, learn, communicate, socialize, and generally experience the world.

New technologies usually follow a hype cycle as shown here:


As you can see (if you click on the image to expand), both AR and VR are currently at a low point on the curve. This is because the hype has created higher public expectations for the product than the industry can deliver. But let’s assume for the moment that AR and VR truly live up to their potential. Will they be readily adopted in schools, colleges and universities to teach science? I hope so. The possibilities are exciting. There are many hurdles (school admin and teacher engagement, cost and availability of equipment) but as with most technological innovation, adoption usually follows if given enough time.

But there are two aspects of using this tech as an educational vehicle for science that merit discussion. First, if these artificial worlds become as addictive as have our mobile devices, will people not crave the virtual environment to the exclusion of real-world learning? Personally, as a biologist, my hope is that these new tools for scientific discovery by the public will ultimately inspire people to take a real-world walk through a botanic garden or a stroll through the woods, or even consider biology as a career. The tools will hopefully augment, not detract, from real-world science appreciation and experiences.

Second, as use of the tech becomes commonplace, will students eventually get bored? “Think I’ll skip biology today… we’re just going inside another cell again”. I think the developers creating the apps for VR and AR science education will be the people who continue to get the most excited… after all, we are the ones who must research these worlds, intimately understand and appreciate the science, and then present it in a graphically-stunning manner, as a game or otherwise. (A riveting soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.) Maybe one way to maintain engagement would be to come up with ways for students to create their own worlds. They do the research, put it all together, and then share with the class or on social networks. I see a use for machine learning algorithms here. Intelligent apps that facilitate the player (student) becoming the creator.

What do you think?

Becoming human for the sake of science education

tree personScience does not approve of the practice of attributing human characteristics to non-humans. To say that a bird is ‘happy’ to be flying about on a sunny day is not permitted. But if the cause is to educate, is it permissible to anthropomorphise? To improve engagement with the public or to get a point across? I’ve sometimes fantasized about what it might be like to be a plant. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to craft a video game about plants with feelings? Or to actually be a plant? Anger that your leaves are infested with mildew? Relief that the rain has finally arrived after months of drought? Or let’s take the point of view of a molecule of water, as it journeys through its water cycle. We could imagine all kinds of sociological undertones as a water molecule interacts with all those other water molecules struggling to evaporate (me first, me first). The point is to use this tool to get people thinking about, and appreciating, science. With so much aversion to science these days, I think it’s ok, and perhaps necessary, to bend the rules. If people are to embrace all the wondrous detail of the natural world, we need them to identify with that world. And I think the plants would agree.

So what’s a sunfleck anyway?

A sunfleck is basically a bright spot or dapple of light. The term is frequently used in an ecological context to describe bright spots of light reaching the forest floor. They result from the random movement of tree leaves tossed about in a breeze on a sunny day. This has huge consequences for the plants living in the understory. Plants often acclimate to local light conditions by producing leaves adapted to full sun (curiously enough, called sun leaves) or to full shade (shade leaves). Imagine being a small plant growing quietly in the shadow of large trees. Suddenly a sunfleck arrives, bathing your shade leaves in brilliant light. What a jolt. Leaf temperature suddenly climbs, water rapidly evaporates from your leaf surfaces and photosynthesis rate goes way up. Then just as quickly, the light disappears. Back to normal, only to have the light return a few seconds later. No such thing as getting used to your environment, because it’s always changing. The transient changes in biochemistry produced by sunflecks are fascinating and are the subject of ongoing scientific study. For example click here or here.

Imaginative science, creative coding

girlscientist“I do science”. That’s a phrase which sums up my job as a research biologist. Scientists often use this phrase to define their role in the creation of new knowledge and the pursuit of a better understanding of our universe. I too, thrill in the moment of discovery. It’s a nice feeling when experiments actually work and your hypothesis stands the test. I also (as all scientists) endure the times when the experiments just won’t work and literally months are spent just spinning wheels. (I won’t even get into the frustrations of managing as opposed to doing science). But we survive because of our passion.

So what does any of this have to do with Sunfleck Software? A few years ago I began to learn to write software programs. As a matter of fact, it came about because of one of my projects in biology. I began to really enjoy this new activity, and before I knew it, I was hooked and moon-lighting for Sunfleck Software as a developer. It’s been said that the act of writing software is more of an art than a science. I guess I would agree. Even though the code itself must obey extremely rigid rules in order to run, the process of putting that code together in such a way that something useful emerges is a highly creative process. And then there is the challenge of creating a program which is aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. This requires at least some ability and creativity in graphical design.

But wait… I would argue that doing science is also an act of creation. Many don’t understand that it takes a unique kind of thinking to put together experiments which unambiguously answer a question or test a hypothesis. The term “elegant” has sometimes been used to describe such experiments. The thing is, creation and imagination in scientific research produces intangibles such as data, information and knowledge. True, widgets often eventually arise from this research, but that is the thrust of technology, not science. Creativity in code-writing produces something quite different… a product. A tangible piece of software which can be used to educate, organize, entertain… virtually anything the user wants from it. For me, this is a new kind of endeavor, and I look forward to doing a lot more of it.