Huntsville-based HudsonAlpha offers breakthrough in biology education

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The Huntsville Times

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By Budd McLaughlin

Contrary to the way most of us were taught in school, cells (plants, animals and bacteria) are not flat.

Perhaps we knew that they weren’t, but there wasn’t any way for us to see that because the diagrams were usually presented on pages in textbooks.

Now, thanks to the work at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, students can see that cells are actually three-dimensional.
The program is called HudsonAlpha Cell and it’s as easy as clicking on a Web browser.

And, to quote the Apple I-Phone commercial, "there’s an app for that," too.

The idea for the application sprang from HudsonAlpha Cell, a feature in HudsonAlpha’s digital education lineup.

"We contracted with Digital Radiance to help us in the creation of an interactive learning tool that would launch from the institute’s Web site," said Dr. Neil Lamb, director of educational outreach at HudsonAlpha. "We recently upgraded the alpha version and, in the process, Ron (Phillips, president and CEO of Digital Radiance) and his group had the idea for the Apple application."

To see the faces of Lamb, Phillips and Dr. Adam Hott, the coordinator of educational outreach at HudsonAlpha, light up as they talk about this is refreshing.

The three are truly dedicated to their work and to education.

"We want this to be a grass-roots type movement," Hott said. "This is something that every biology student should have access to."

Teachers have said it’s difficult to teach today’s students because of all the gadgets (or distractions) they have. And this is where Digital Radiance comes into play.

Digital Radiance, which is one of 13 resident companies at HudsonAlpha, is an online video game-based education firm.

"You see them immediately engage; their eyes light up and the chatter begins," said Lamb of the students’ reactions when they see the image and how they can interact with it. "It’s what today’s students are accustomed to."

It’s what they’re accustomed to and, unfortunately, we’re accustomed to similar education programs being stymied by a lack of money.
But that’s where this program can step in: Since it’s available on a Web browser, it’s free.

And Hott said the Unity 3-D Web player has made all the difference.

"It is truly groundbreaking," he said. "Unity, which is free to download, gives students and teachers the ability to interact with a 3-D object in a Web browser."

Since there are a lot of classrooms that aren’t able to afford the latest offerings from Apple and Dell and the like, the HudsonAlpha Cell will even work on an older computer.

For those whose electronics are more up to date, the HudsonAlpha iCell is a free app available on Apple’s App Store.
The app is simply amazing, too.

The HudsonAlpha Cell program gives a 3-D view of the cell, instead of the old 2-dimensional diagram in the textbooks. The graphics provide a realistic look at the cells’ structure and students can "spin" the cell by touching it on the iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone and looking at its three dimensions.

When students touch particular parts of the cell image, a prompt pops up with a definition of that part.

"For the first time, students and teachers can directly manipulate detailed 3-D models of a plant cell, an animal cell and a bacterial cell by touching to rotate, zoom and identify cell structures," Phillips said. "Students have difficulty remembering the parts of a cell or visualizing the structure, so this free app can really help.

"Besides, we think a cell phone really should have a cell app!"