Subject: Biology (Study and teaching)
Cells (Models)
Computer software industry (Product introduction)
Author: Loftin, Madelene
Pub Date: 09/01/2010
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Sept, 2010 Source Volume: 72 Source Issue: 7
Topic: Event Code: 336 Product introduction Advertising Code: 57 New Products/Services Computer Subject: Science education software
Product: Name: iCell (Educational/training software) Product Code: 8522100 Biology NAICS Code: 54171 Research and Development in the Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences SIC Code: 7372 Prepackaged software
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 245037789
Full Text: iCell. HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. Available at http://www.hudsonalpha. org/education/digitaleducation/icell.

Having trouble engaging your students in studying cell structures? Now "there's an app for that."

The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology has recently released online version 2.0 of its 3-D interactive cell model, iCell. Hudson-Alpha iCell features models of a plant cell, an animal cell, and a bacterial cell. Each model is interactive, allowing users to dive in for a close-up view of specific organelles, rotate the cell and organelles for a 360-degree view, and read annotations that explain the function of each structure. Imagine your students studying cell structures using a dynamic and realistic virtual model rather than a static picture. iCell is available both in a web-based version and as an app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.

The first thing you'll notice when you open iCell is the visually stunning backgrounds. Each of the three virtual environments places the cell model in context. The plant cell model seems surrounded by other plant cells, the animal cell model seems suspended in living tissue, and the bacterial model seems to float among other bacteria. Zoom in using mouse clicks and rotate the models with a simple click-and-drag. The cell membranes are fluid with constant watery motion, which helps convey cells as dynamic and alive. The online version includes annotations at three levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced), with language and details increasing in complexity.

Several iCell online features lend themselves to classroom use:

* Cells open in their own resizable window, which autodetects the size of the screen. This feature allows the program to run on the older computers that are common in many schools without the teacher having to reset the resolution.

* Descriptions of organelle functions in the annotations are available at each of the three levels mentioned above.

* Annotations can be toggled on and off. This allows educators to use the model as an assessment tool.

* The cell rotation and zoom feature can be locked. Interactive whiteboard users will be able to lock cells to add teacher content, additional drawings, or notes for students.

* The iCell plant cell opens with a cell wall in place. Removing the semi-opaque cell wall with the click of a button allows the user to view the inner contents clearly.

* All three cells can be opened in independent windows simultaneously, allowing teachers to easily transition between types and compare structures.

The iPhone and iPad app versions of iCell are available for download from the App Store at no cost. iCell on this platform is a certain interest-grabber. The developers hope that having iCell at the fingertips of students will encourage its use as a study tool. The touch-based technology of the iPhone makes using the model a more personal and engaging experience than viewing the typical flat textbook image.

Many life-science teachers will have experience with other virtual cell models. What makes iCell unique is the dynamic nature of the models. Where other virtual models are cartoonish, with components that often look like cardboard cutouts, iCell is more realistic. iCell organelles are based on electron micrographs of cell structures. Individual structures have differing textures, are placed freely throughout the 3-D cell model, and do not rely on traditional textbook color coding. The membranous Golgi body, with its fleshy-looking protuberances and vesicles, looks as if it is actually working. iCell uses video-game technology to create a virtual environment that clearly conveys the dynamic world of a cell.

There are some potential drawbacks to the iCell model suite. The mobile version's graphics are not as rich, annotations are given only at the basic level, and not every student will have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. The iPad is a new technology that will likely not make it into most classrooms for several years. Web-based iCell requires the web plug-in Unity (analogous to Flash). Unity is free to download, but for many teachers this process may require IT intervention.

Despite those possible pitfalls, iCell seems designed with the classroom in mind. The features make it teacher friendly and the high "cool factor" makes it student engaging. I have visions of future students sitting around "playing iCell" to prepare for my next test.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2010.72.7.14

Madelene Loftin

Educator in Residence

HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology

Huntsville, AL 35806

JEFFREY SACK has taught all types of high school biology in both public and private schools for the past 12 years. His scientific interests include marine ecology and bird behavior, and his educational interests include the relationship between scientific content knowledge and pedagogy and the uses of instructional technology in the classroom. Sack holds degrees in biology from the University of Rhode Island and central connecticut State University, and a doctorate in educational Leadership from central connecticut State University his address is 67 cedar lake road, chester, CT 06412; e-mail:
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.