Thanks to a new application of distance learning technology, Jo Ann Eurell, an associate professor of veterinary medicine, recently gave an unprecedented lesson on the development of a two-day-old chicken embryo to 38 high school biology students sitting miles away in two different classrooms. The project, nicknamed “Chickscope,” was distance learning with a brand-new twist.

It was the first time, according to scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory, that 3-D imaging and a virtual reality environment were transmitted in a two-dimensional form to a classroom via the internet.

Eurell was working with digital images of various views of tissue slices from embryos in a virtual reality environment called an ImmersaDesk, a 4-by-6 foot screen.

Her voice and the picture she was working with were transmitted over the internet to the students. And just as in a regular classroom, the students could ask her questions-requesting that she zoom in on a specific organ to provide a view of the chick’s circulatory system, for instance, or that she rotate the view of the tissue slice by 90 degrees.

The idea of classes being taught over the internet is nothing new, of course. But project leader Clint Potter explained that this was the first time researchers had taken a 3-D image such as the one Eurell was looking at in a virtual reality environment and had been able to transmit it in a two-dimensional form, so students elsewhere could look at it on a computer screen or project it onto a wall.

“This service can bring high technology to people who are separated by great distances, who may not have a lot of money and resources to experience the whole thing right there. This is reaching out to anybody on the web,” said Lisa Childers of the Argonne National Laboratory, which developed some of the technology for the project.

The demonstration was one of the exhibits at the first official gathering of partners in the National Computational Science Alliance, an effort funded by the National Science Foundation to create the communications infrastructure for the next century.

The University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications is the leader in the alliance and developed some of the technology used in the chicken embryo demonstration.

Eurell is an associate professor in the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The students listening to her presentation in one location were members of a biology class at University High School in Urbana, Ill., and students in the other location were members of a computer club at Urbana High School.

Eurell could see the students at University High on a small window on her big screen. They asked quite a few questions-how blood travels through a chicken embryo at that age, how different a human heart is from a chicken embryo, how organs develop.

But at Urbana High School, the project didn’t run as smoothly. The school’s internet connection is too slow, so the students in the computer club saw the images frame-by-frame instead of in constant motion, like a video.

They also had to listen to Eurell’s voice over a speaker phone.

But teacher Jim Peterson thinks lessons such as the one Eurell presented will be common in schools as soon as 10 years from now. And students will be able to download such video and audio presentations from the internet to use in their own studies, he said: “The students will be able to gather things from all over the world.”

Argonne National Laboratory
http://www.anl.gov

National Center for Supercomputing Applications
http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu

National Computational Science Alliance
http://alliance.ncsa.uiuc.edu