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Archive for February, 2006

Website Review: www.CellsAlive.com

Posted by Mr. Oettinger on 28th February 2006

Updated 9/13/08.

CELLS Alive!

The URL is: http://www.cellsalive.com.

This site is authored by a gentleman by the name of James A. Sullivan.  His resume and web site represent “over 25 years of experience capturing film and computer-enhanced images of living cells and organisms for education and medical research.”

The site claims to have been published in 1994.  A quick WHOIS search of the domain name purchase reveals a date of 9/28/96.  I am more inclined to believe the 1996 date because I remember there wasn’t much happening on the internet until 1995 at the earliest.  I could be wrong.

The site claims to be updated annually.  It is not clear when the annual update takes place.  I cannot tell when the site was last visited, except that I have been visiting it quite often over the past few weeks.

Are the content/concepts correct?
When you visit any of the interactive content pages, you find an icon to the upper right corner of the page boasting recognition by Scientific American (SCIAM) in its Science & Technology Web Awards 2005.  One would expect that an endorsement from such a respectable publication is indicative of an accurate presentation of scientific information.  This site has also been recognized for excellence by Popular Science Magazine, and has received a host of respectable kudos throughout the years.

Furthermore, site author James Sullivan’s credentials suggest that this guy knows his stuff.  He has plenty of experience in the area of cellular observation and research as evidenced by his resume.  The material presented on this web site is of a fairly basic nature and most of the information can be easily verified by opening up any standard biology text book.  There is a links section which provides active links for verification of information and for further study.

The intended audience is anybody interested in learning about or teaching the basics of cell biology, microbiology, immunology and microscopy.  First year biology students in high school would find this site helpful.  The material is not overly technical, and it does a good job of covering the essential basics of the topics.  Therefore, this web site appeals to a wide audience both in age and in interest.

There are absolutely no commercial advertisements anywhere on this web site.  Permission is given for teachers and students to use images from this site for educational purposes, as long as the site is referenced.

This site advertises its multimedia content via download or on CD-ROM at a significant cost.  This content consists of many flash animations and video clips that are already available for free on the site.  The author of the site apparently provides the content on CD-ROM for those without internet access, which is a nice feature.  The download and CD-ROM content is also a way for users to make a donation to the site so that it remains a free site for those with internet access.

It is interesting to note that it is not necessary to purchase the CD-ROM in order to obtain many of the multimedia files.  The author of the site makes no attempt to prevent downloads of any video clips, images or flash animation.  I was able to easily view the source code for individual web pages and get the information I needed to download embedded objects such as Flash animations.  Any computer-savvy individual could obtain whatever free content he wanted from the CELLS Alive! web site for use in projects or presentations.  However, there is a host of premium content, in the form of video clips, which is not free on the web site.  You must pay for a download or purchase the CD-ROM to obtain the premium content.

Content Description:
This site offers films, computer enhanced images and animations of various cells and organisms.  The main categories covered by this site are cell biology, microbiology, immunology and microscopy.  Most of the interactive features are under the heading of cell biology, so I will focus my analysis on that category.

The cell models of plant, animal and bacterial cells are large, colorful and easy to understand.  Each model image has links to pages with detailed descriptions of the organelles, including additional images.  All you have to do is put your mouse over an organelle, and the name will be displayed in a text box.

There is a fantastic Flash animation of Animal Cell Mitosis that includes actual photos of a cell in each stage superimposed over a corner of the animation.  You have the option to watch the animation play, or to take each stage step-by-step.  Animal cell meiosis is also explored through the use of Flash animation.  The presentation is well done and includes a magnification option to view the process close-up with the steps delineated in more detail.

The Cell Cycle animation is simple, but insightful in its depiction of the cycle as a circular illustration.

There are two “Cell Cams” in which a user could watch bacterial growth or cell division in a population of cultured cancer cells.  Each cam shows the beginning frame, an intermediate frame that can be advanced to the present or rewound to the beginning in a few incremental steps, and a final frame that is the most current picture.  One awkward thing about the cell cams is that the function of the “jump forward” and “jump back” buttons isn’t clear.  Once I figured out that the buttons only apply to the intermediate frame in the middle, I could actually enjoy the presentation.  The presentation gives the appearance of happening in real-time, and automatically updates the final frame in regular increments throughout the day.

This site offers a ten-question quiz on each of the three main topics of cell biology, microbes and the immune system.  The quiz is administered in a popup window and graded in real time as you submit each answer.  One problem with the popup window is that it is not large enough to accommodate all possible answer choices, so if you don’t scroll down, you will potentially miss a viable answer choice.  This needs some improvement.

There is a links section that offers 45 links in 14 content areas for further study or research.  This section does not include any dead links.  This page was updated on 10/28/05.

As mentioned earlier, free and premium site content is available for purchase via download or CD-ROM.  A single-user copy of the CD-ROM costs $80 and is shipped free to worldwide addresses.  This site accepts PayPal, which is a hugely popular third-party online payment service that is free and easy for purchasers to use.

Use of this technology in the classroom has many benefits:
One big advantage to using this technology is that it saves time.  Concepts like mitosis and meiosis are always covered in a general biology class.  I once observed a teacher who spent a significant amount of class time drawing the steps of meiosis on the chalkboard with a variety of colored chalk.  This was in a school where all students were issued a laptop computer and had access to wireless internet.  With a paucity of board space, the teacher had to erase each step after it had been explained to make room for the next step.  This meant there was no going back to a previous step.  The students had many questions, and it was obvious that this teacher’s method was highly inefficient considering the obvious access to technology.

On another occasion, I watched a different teacher use the CELLS Alive! Web site to teach mitosis.  She reviewed each step through the computer projected on a screen and had instant illustrations to discuss each step.  This teacher even jumped to another web site with similar content, just to get a different perspective on the topic.  This lesson moved more smoothly and questions were handled with ease as the teacher navigated through different phases using this technology.  Another example of time savings in seen in the cell cams.  Students can view several hours of cell growth/division in the course of a single period.  This can enhance a lab experience by shortening the amount of time needed for data collection.

A second advantage to using this technology is that it offers a visual perspective and ease of access to rather abstract concepts like mitosis, meiosis, or the structure of plant and animal cells.  The animations are especially useful in helping students connect stages of a cycle in mitosis, or gives students immediate access to information related to the structure and function of different cell organelles.  There is no need to flip through pages of a handout or a textbook.  In the case of cell organelles, a student can click on any organelle and immediately access information about its name, structure and function.  In a textbook, one might find an illustration on one page, followed by several pages of descriptions of each structure.  Web technology condenses this information into an efficient package.

A third advantage to using this technology is that it offers virtual access to technologies that would otherwise be unavailable to students/teachers.  The cell cams are a prime example.  Microscopes, cell cultures, and a host of prep materials might be cost-prohibitive for an underfunded science program.  CELLS Alive! offers virtual access to the materials needed to run a lab on cell division.  Even if a school doesn’t offer the web access needed for all students to use this web site, the site is still a useful resource for a teacher to download the information needed to make this virtual lab idea happen.

An obvious limitation to the use of this technology is access.  To use this material in a classroom, one would need internet access, or at the very least, one would need the ability to demonstrate site content to a class.  It is possible to download this site content at another location (from home) and incorporate the content into a PowerPoint presentation or computer demonstration.  However, if a person weren’t savvy enough to figure out how to download some of the animations or videos, then one would have to buy a copy of the site on CD-ROM, which is a significant cost.

Another limitation is content.  The content is limited to specific content areas as previously mentioned.  Thus, this site serves a purpose as an excellent resource, but cannot be relied upon for a comprehensive set of data for extended unit-based instruction.  You can’t always get what you want, and most people should realize that a variety of sources is ideal for any presentation.

One last critique is that it is a bit annoying that the cell cycle animation begins playing as soon as you load the Cell Cycle page.  It’s generally considered poor “netiquette” to have multimedia with sound play automatically on the loading of a web page.

This web site makes use of technology that is beyond my own (fairly adept) capabilities, and this site implements its educational and informational mission quite well, which makes it hard for me to make any significant recommendations for improving this technology.  As mentioned previously, I think that the quiz windows need improvement because the window is too small to accommodate all answer choices.  This is a minor point, because I wouldn’t expect any teacher worthy of the title to rely on such a simple ten-question quiz for any real assessment.  However, I would like to see more extensive quizzes, because it is a neat feature and this site does a good job of it for the most part.  It would be nice if the cell cycle animation mentioned above did not automatically start playing when you load the page.

In general, the information on this web site is easy to find, the site is easy to navigate, there are no broken or dead links, there is a plethora of accurate information, and there is an excellent use of technology.  This site is fantastic and renown as evidenced by the many awards and recognitions it has received throughout its extended presence on the internet.
Suggested Educational Uses
Simulation/Illustration of Mitosis/Meiosis:
A Biology teacher inevitably has to explore cell division.  CELLS Alive! is an excellent resource of accurate and easy-to-use animations.  I am especially impressed with the mitosis animation that shows real images alongside the flash animation of the mitotic cell division.  One can clearly see the chromosomes lined up along the center of the cell during metaphase, or that daughter chromosomes have clearly moved to opposite sides of the dividing cell during telophase!  The inclusion of the real image nicely complements the Flash animation.  I would use this animation as a way to illustrate the process of cell division during an initial lecture on the topic.  If students were to use this site to learn about meiosis, I would expect them to answer these questions:

  • How many cells are the products of meiosis?
  • Are those cells diploid or haploid?
  • At what stage does “crossing over” of genes occur?
  • What are some main differences between mitosis and meiosis?

Exploration of cell structure and function:
The cell organelles section is interactive in that when you put the mouse over an organelle, the name of the structure is revealed.  I suggest one use of this as an in-class or at-home interactive exploration as a precursor to a lecture on cell structure and function.  The assignment could include making a drawing by hand with clear identification and labeling of cell structures.  The student would have to be sure to explore all parts of the cell with the mouse to make sure that everything is included in the diagram.  There is a finite amount of information available, which lends itself to an assessment rubric for the assignment.  Some questions I would expect students to be able to answer by using the information on this site:

  • What is the function of mitochondrion?
  • What is the function of endoplasmic reticulum?
  • What structures are unique to plant cells?
  • What is the largest structure in a plant cell?

Virtual lab on cell division:
The cell cams lend themselves to a virtual lab on cell division.  Since students can have access to each intermediate frame of the bacteria cam, for instance, a teacher could devise a lab assignment involving quantification of cell division during a given time period.  This lab could be performed without need for expensive and sensitive lab equipment, and could be performed without the time constraints needed to obtain viable data.  The number of cells, colony surface area, time and length of each division can be easily estimated or quantified.  To incorporate additional technology use in this assignment, a teacher could ask students to present data in the form of a graph, possible by using a spreadsheet program to collect data and greate a graphical output.

Open Ended Inquiry Assignment:
Students could use this web site as a starting point for a research project.  There is an interesting archive of pictures, links, information and data related to a host of topics that can serve as the basis for an inquiry project by students.  The assignment could include finding a topic of interest in Biology, and researching it using the information and links on CELLS Alive! as a starting point.  Some questions that can be researched using information on this site are:

  • What is the mechanism of HIV infection?
  • How are antibodies produced?
  • Describe the life cycle of a living cell in detail?

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