Imagine a diagram in a high-school biology book suddenly coming to life, spinning off the page as a detailed three-dimensional image.

Or picture a written explanation of how blood is sampled and tested, translated into a video clip that actually shows how it’s done.

If this sounds a bit more titillating than the average high school lab class, then J. Paul Robinson and his crew of scientists at Purdue University are on the right track.

The BioScope Initiative is a project Robinson started last year that uses Purdue’s laboratory facilities to produce high-quality images and videos that accompany subjects commonly taught in high school biology classes. These images are being incorporated into a CD-ROM that works in conjunction with the internet.

The result is a fully interactive program that will give kids anywhere in the world multimedia access to science, allowing them to dig as deep into the subject matter as they wish.

“There’s lots of stuff that you can’t teach kids because you don’t have the time in school,” said Robinson, a Purdue professor and director of the initiative. “But the kids, if they’re excited and interested about it, will go off and learn about it themselves.”

For example, the BioScope software–which is still being developed–can display the structure of a plant cell in which each distinct part of the cell acts as a link. By clicking on one of the links, students are shown a rotating three-dimensional view of that specific cell part and given a brief explanation of what it does.

If students want additional information, they can proceed to a more detailed section.

The students can also view images of different cells through an interactive microscope. This part of the program provides everything from pictures taken on relatively low-powered microscopes to ones from high-powered electron microscopes, images that previously would only be available at a research university.

“We want to expose the student to science and scientific images,” said Kelly Carles-Kinch, the project’s manager. “Expose the student to things they normally wouldn’t have access to.”

The idea for the BioScope Initiative came early in 1997. Robinson’s son, Tim, had done a lab experiment at school one day. It was a common high school procedure where students scrape cells from inside their mouths then examine the cells under a microscope.

Robinson asked his 15-year-old what the cells were and what they looked like. Tim didn’t remember, and didn’t seem too excited about it.

Later that night, father and son marched into Robinson’s lab at Purdue and did the same experiment, this time using a $350,000 high-powered microscope. The resulting color printouts showed detailed images of human cells, highlighted by fluorescent dyes to illustrate different parts.

“He was pretty excited,” Robinson said of his son. “He was able to take to school these pictures that were so much better than the ones in (the) textbooks.”

That’s when the light bulb clicked on. Why not use computer technology to give kids an exciting way to experience science? Why should they have fuzzy, flat textbook pictures when kids anywhere can see dramatic three-dimensional images on CD-ROM?

A couple years and a $2 million grant later, Robinson and his team are nearing completion of their first BioScope CD-ROM, which they hope to make available in the fall. A consortium of educators from across the country acts as an advisory board, and the software is being tested by several teachers in Indiana and other states.

Linda Anderson, a biology teacher at West Lafayette High School, worked with a preliminary version of the software and was impressed.

“The kids liked it a lot,” she said. “They like computers and they like technology, so it was really good for them.”

She said the average low-power high school microscope can frustrate students because it’s sometimes hard for them to see what they’re supposed to see.

“The same images on the computer are much clearer and sharper,” she said.

In the end, the scientists, programmers and graphic artists working on the BioScope project hope to provide an affordable means of bringing interesting, high-quality scientific information into any school that has internet access and a CD-ROM drive.

“We want to give them the excitement of science,” Robinson said. “One really questions today whether kids get that.

“Science is important, and we want kids to see that science is not just an exciting hobby, it’s an exciting profession.”

BioScope Initiative