Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU researchers garner grant for virtual world

virtual world

An avatar visits DU's Meyer-Womble Observatory at night on SciLands, the University's virtual islands dedicated to scientific research and education. PHOTO BY: Jeff Corbin.

A team of University of Denver researchers is attracting some real money for their work in a virtual world.

Research Professors Robert Amme and Zeev Shayer, of DU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, working with Research Associate Jeff Corbin, are preparing to spend a $200,000 grant from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They’re developing a new way of conducting educational experiments in a three-dimensional online world called Second Life.

Second Life is a relatively new online phenomenon attracting millions of users. Internet participants create computer representations of themselves, called avatars, that walk, fly or drive around a series of islands and communities, interacting with other avatars. 

Second Life caters to many interests. There are areas for socializing, like 3D chat rooms, or virtual malls for shopping. Politicians have used the virtual location to hold town hall meetings, and marketers have demonstrated new products.

Amme and Corbin bought virtual land inside Second Life and connected with scientists from around the world to create an archipelago of islands — called SciLands — dedicated to scientific research and education. On DU’s island, dubbed “The Science School,” the two recreated Olin Hall and a replica of DU’s Meyer-Womble Observatory on Mt. Evans.

Anyone in Second Life can “teleport” to DU’s island, wander through educational exhibits and take a look inside the observatory. At 14,000 feet, the real-life observatory is the highest observatory in the U.S. And it’s all but unreachable in the winter. In Second Life, DU students, and anyone else who wants, can get “there” even in a blizzard.

A distance-learning breakthrough

“I think this is the greatest breakthrough for distance learning that we have ever seen,” Amme says. “People keep asking me, ‘Is this an exhibit or a teaching tool? Show me this can enhance our capacity for teaching.’ … If you use it properly, it will enhance the learning.”

What Amme and others see is a new venue for holding virtual lectures — for “gathering” students in a classroom where they can see and interact with each other, even if they’re miles apart.

And since the world exists only on an array of computer servers, Amme says it’s the perfect environment for testing potentially hazardous substances, such as radioactive material. Hence, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s interest.

A safer way to experiment

Amme envisions helping students conduct experiments in radioactivity using programs that simulate how the material would actually behave in the physical world. But because it’s all online, there’s no risk to the environment and no risk to students. It also cuts expenses, such as the badges students would wear in real life to monitor exposure to radioactivity.

John Hill, academic director and instructor for DU’s University College’s master of environmental policy and management program, is a big supporter of work in Second Life. About 80 percent of his students take classes online, far from the lab facilities where experiments in radioactivity could be conducted safely.

“It’s not enough just to read about it, we want to give them some real practical, hands-on experience using Second Life,” Hill says. “The ability to do this kind of work virtually robustly enhances their opportunity and ability to expand education in this area. They can make mistakes and get themselves all irradiated, and there’s no consequences.”

Most of the grant money will go to course development and staffing, Amme says. But some will help support the cost of maintaining the intricate online island facility. Eventually, Amme says, the work in Second Life will be paid for by tuition, the same way other Internet distance learning programs are supported.

Web of the future

Senior scientist Paul Doherty at San Francisco’s Exploratorium science museum is a Second Life believer who is encouraging DU’s venture into education in the virtual world. Second Life, he says, is a hint at what the Web of the future will look like. It’s come at just the right time, with enough broadband infrastructure and a developing critical mass of regular users to sustain a new way at interacting online, he says.

“If you want to be involved in the future of the Web, you have to be involved in Second Life now,” he says.

“It’s really up to one’s imagination as to how they use this platform,” says Corbin. “It’s a creative adventure that is rather limitless.”

You can get a glimpse of Second Life without actually going inside at

Or, to visit DU in the virtual world, join Second Life for free at Then, once inside, search for “The Science School.”

Comments are closed.