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An interview with NOVA Labs’ Digital Content Producer Alex Rosenthal

ByScott AsakawaNOVA EducationNOVA Education

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Alex Rosenthal is a Digital Content Producer with the NOVA Labs team, and the brains behind the collection of four short-form educational videos developed specifically for the RNA Lab . The videos engage learners, illustrating scientific concepts in a fun and easy-to-understand way. More than that, though, they tie the entire Lab together, solidify the narrative, and help users to understand the scientific context of their roles as “RNA engineers.”

Although Alex had extensive experience in content production before coming to NOVA to work on the RNA Lab, he eagerly embraced the opportunity to make videos for education. Recently, I sat down with Alex to discuss his thoughts on making digital content specifically for a learning audience, and what it’s been like having his RNA Lab material out there in the world.

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Alex, thanks very much for talking with us today.

ALEX: My pleasure!

Could you explain a bit of the relationship between the RNA Lab and Eterna?

ALEX: The Eterna interface has existed for a few years. Scientists and designers at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford created the platform to help crowdsource the answer to the question of what RNA is, and how it functions in the body. Unfortunately, the game mechanic wasn’t particularly intuitive, so there was a fair amount of attrition. Also, the science of RNA wasn’t being explained, so people were basically solving puzzles in the abstract, not considering their actions in context. With the RNA Lab, we wanted to use Eterna to build an experience whereby players could learn the game interface and the science at the same time.

Players can start the RNA Lab with no prior knowledge, and can learn the interface. Once they become expert enough, they can problem solve throughout the game, and their solutions are explained in context via the video shorts and animations in the RNA Lab. After playing the RNA Lab, they can transition to Eterna and start on their way towards contributing RNA designs to be built in the wet labs at CMU. It’s a pretty awesome opportunity for students.

A trailer for the RNA Lab

Going into the project, what were the main educational objectives for the NOVA Labs team?

ALEX: One of our main missions with Labs is to give students the opportunity to interact with big data in a way that isn’t totally overwhelming. For a lot of the Labs, that has meant working with graphs, or cool tools like NASA’s Helioviewer . In this case, the data is built into the architecture of the (Eterna) game platform. It’s one of the most novel approaches to data that I’ve ever seen.

Further, we’re trying to give learners a way to work with science. Not just to learn science, but to really get their hands dirty, doing things that are more reminiscent of the scientific process. We’re looking to marry that approach to curricula, standards, and the things that science teachers are presenting in classrooms at both the middle and high school levels.

In what educational contexts would you suggest the RNA Lab be best used?

Alex: We planned it out to be used specifically in biology classrooms. We talked to a good number of biology teachers early on in the process to understand how they might use it. We also wanted to know, of course, how subject matter about RNA is taught in classrooms. It’s interesting that for the most part, RNA is taught in schools as messenger RNA (the intermediary between DNA and proteins). The RNA Lab deals mostly with non-coding RNAs, which are RNAs that fold up, and actually have jobs within the cell besides message transmission. Knowing this, we structured the game into four parts. The first part is an introduction, and the second deals with protein synthesis, so we think that that part is a good starting point for classroom use.

Why should teachers use the RNA Lab as opposed to any other tool for teaching RNA?

ALEX: There’s an increasing fascination with gamification of education, and a lot of that looks at motivation, you know, how to award achievement and progress. The RNA Lab has a totally different angle on gamification: the gamification of actual subject matter. This particular approach is something I’m very excited about.

Also, it’s not often that, in a classroom, students can design RNA molecules, can play a game, and can eventually get published in a paper as a result. Carnegie Mellon actually credits their Eterna players who contribute to published research. That’s pretty amazing, and using the RNA Lab can give students a great head start if they’re interested in an opportunity like that.

Finally, I think using the RNA Lab makes the material much stickier because it’s introduced in the context of problem solving. In order to solve the problems presented in the game, you need to understand and incorporate the relevant information. I think it’s a very exciting and robust way of learning subject matter.

A video from the RNA Lab explains protein synthesis.

What have you learned during the production of the RNA Lab that you’re feeling good about taking into the next project for NOVA Labs?

ALEX: It’s been very interesting to watch kids play the game at the conferences we’ve been to. Learners of various ages and backgrounds really seem to like the RNA Lab. Once they start, they don’t want to stop! In the abstract, there’s something fascinating about watching how people play the game, where they look during the process, what they click on, and on and on. Every new user is a wealth of information.

In terms of production, I think I’ve learned what a good engineering game is. It’s funny, because although the subject matter aligns to biology, the actual gameplay mechanic is an engineering game. You’re creating something, getting feedback about what works, and what doesn’t, then iterating, all in a problem-solving framework. I think I’ve learned that the best engineering games present an environment where you can create and place something into a working context, and you can iterate and level up based on that. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but if you can see the connection between form and function, and build an interface that makes that clear, then I think you’re on the right track.

What’s next for the NOVA Labs team?

ALEX: We’re in production now on a cyber security lab. We’re using a narrative approach where the user will play the role of a chief technology officer for a company that’s getting attacked by cyber threats. There will be a variety of challenges having to do with coding, password cracking, and things representative of the breadth of what it means to understand cyber security. We’re hoping that learners will use the lab and better understand the core issues at stake when dealing with cyber security, and how to negotiate them thoughtfully.

Great. We’re looking forward to it! Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with the education audience?

ALEX: I think it’s an exciting time in education. There’s a new world of tools being created, a new wealth, and I’m so excited to see how it can be used constructively in the classroom. We’re at the birth of something, and there will be some stumbles along the way, but I encourage everyone to experiment as much as they can to see what works. When I approach projects, my litmus test is “awe and wonder.” I look for the things that I find inspiring, and I build out from there. I think there’s a lot of inspiring content here, and also in other educational resources, so I encourage people to find what’s out there.

Thanks for speaking to us today, Alex.

ALEX: No problem. Thanks for having me on.