Ruminating on the digital divide

A few weeks ago I attended a education conference at Pacific Science Center entitled, "A Conversation that Can Change the World."

It was interesting.  Everyone was pretty enthusiastic at the meeting and there was a lot of positive energy.

  • We got to see Theresa Britschgi from Seattle Biomedical Research Institute make Jack Faris, President of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, get dressed up in a biohazard protection suit.
  • We heard from Dennis Schatz about the Pacfic Science Center's outreach programs.
  • We had our required moment of technical failure when Ran Hinrichs, of 2b3d, tried a show us a movie about learning in Second Life. (It did finally work).
  • and

  • We learned from Ray Yan of Digi Pen Institute (a video game college) that video gaming is one of the largest industries in the U.S. and that their student body is 99% male. He stressed the need for better preparation in math and science and emphasized that video gaming also needs people with skills in English and art.

The speakers were great but I really enjoyed watching the looks on the faces of people in the audience when they heard about learning in Second Life and the Washington virtual high school. Wow! It was like they just heard that aliens had landed on Bainbridge island and were commuting by ferry.  The worlds of biotechnology and information technology have never seemed so far apart.

Certainly, Mr. Hinrichs (of the Second Life talk) made some very good points. Students who are growing up in a culture of sophisticated software would be not terribly impressed by the talking CDs and virtual fly labs they might see in a science class, if a science class actually used such things. I agree, the virtual science labs that I've seen still haven't caught up to the quality of the Edmark programs that I used to buy for my kids, about a decade ago.

But I don't really think that virtual reality software is the missing piece.  To me, virtual reality isn't nearly as important as using computers for a tool for really doing science and math. Activities like collecting and organizing data, graphing, modeling, making data tables, or using Excel spreadsheets to do calculations, or work with NCBI databases impress me. Things like moving a virtual test tube or flies on a screen by controlling your mouse are a big waste of time.

All I could think about during the conference was the big gap between the ideas that I heard and the reality that I know. 

I've had children in the Seattle school district for 13 years and I have never seen them use computers or software for science or math.   The only exception I know of was a case where I donated CDs that I made to a local high school biotech program so that they could use molecular modeling tools. But other than that one case, it seems that many Seattle teachers view computers as fancy typewriters with a search function. 

I agreed with many of the points made by the speakers and I was glad that our new superintendent was there to hear them.  But still I wonder, how are kids going to learn how to do science and math with computers if they never do it in school?

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"The worlds of biotechnology and information technology have never seemed so far apart."

Funny that you shouls say that. I have a natural aptitude for analytical thinking, but have so far found little of interest in my fields, math and computer science. My search for something meaningful to do with my brain finally lead me to the newly emerging field of synthetic biology. I want to learn the programing language of DNA and to build the libraries that make up the functions of the cell. Biology and computer science have never been so linked!

After looking up some synthetic biology literature, I realized that I'm going to need a greater familiarity with molecular biology to the full benefit of the material. Can you suggest a book or two on molecular biology written for a general audience? Many thanks.

Jackie: Many books kind of jump right in and expect that you're an expert.

One of my favorite books for beginners is "The Cartoon Guide to Genetics" by Larry Gonick and Mark Wheeler. I also like "Genome" by Matt Ridley.


Even though I am a big fan of Second Life as a communication medium, I couldn't agree more. Computational science should be as much part of the curriculum as wet lab experiments. Everyone studying chemistry should do molecular modeling. Everyone doing biology should know how to do sequence analayis, and not just in college, way before that. It's not that complicated either and you could explain things a lot more easily.


It's depressing sometimes. A city like Seattle with such a large number of biotech researchers, sofware people, and engineers should have one of the best school systems in the country.

Instead, a very large fraction of Seattle kids go to private schools. Our school district's problems with selecting high quality math curriculum and general avoidance of computers are probably contributing factors.

I am on the fence about the increased use of computers in science education. There is a big trend in biology classes to have high-school students extracting DNA and running gels and doing other things typical of a molecular genetics lab, to the exclusion of more traditional biology-class fare. This runs the risk of producing students who are impressed with the procedures but do not understand them, something that biology professors have told me they have had to deal a fair bit with. More traditional aspects of course material may not be as flashy, but they provide a valuable foundation for later work. Computer simulation can be a valuable tool, but it cannot replace hands-on experience, and must be used to reinforce or complement foundational skills and information, not to replace them.

Hi Opisthokont,

I know what you mean about getting blinded by the flashy kits.

As far as using a computer for science, I wasn't referring to simulated experiments. I was referring to real experiments and real work, like biologists do every day. This is hands-on and it does reinforce skills.

One example of using computers for science is something we're doing in of my classes. We're analyzing data gathered by students at JHU over the last four years to find out which bacteria live in two different biomes and whether or not our sampling gives different results from year to year. That isn't simulated science at all. We work with real samples and real data.

addiction/poly-directional platform/alternate reality gaming/ learning curve/ Second Life/ > just one question: If learning becomes addicting, will only addicts be smart?

By zippidy Serendipity (not verified) on 29 Nov 2010 #permalink

addiction/poly-directional platform/alternate reality gaming/ learning curve/ Second Life/ > just one question: If learning becomes addicting, will only addicts be smart?

By zippidy Serendipity (not verified) on 29 Nov 2010 #permalink