Vol. 20, No. 13

April 5, 2001

Animation project helps explain genetic engineering


Lesa Griffiths (left) and Sherry Kitto team with "the gene man" in teaching recombinant DNA technology to students. Photo by JOHN COX

Classical genetic approaches for improving organisms that once took many years to accomplish are now being replaced with quicker, more efficient recombinant DNA approaches....

So begins a narrated animation recently developed by a team of UD scientists, communicators and technical staff headed by Lesa Griffiths, associate dean and associate professor of animal science, and Sherry Kitto, horticulture, both in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The step-by-step animation explains the molecular intricacies of recombinant DNA technology, otherwise known as genetic engineering. This is the process whereby restriction enzymes cut and paste snippets of DNA from one strand of DNA to another.

According to Griffiths, the online lesson was developed as a teaching tool for "Biotechnology: Science and Socio-Economic Issues," a course she and Kitto have been teaching since 1988.

The course is a broad presentation of biotechnology from many perspectives, Griffiths explained, but it includes several in-depth science lessons students must learn. One of these lessons is recombinant DNA technology.

The idea to teach this lesson through computer animation came from a student who had struggled to learn some of the details of this technology, Griffiths said.

"Sherry and I give a mid-year evaluation and ask students how we could improve the class. Last fall, one student asked if we could make a cartoon out of recombinant DNA technology to make it easier to understand," Griffiths said. "It sounded like a fun idea and the timing was perfect. The University had just announced the availability of student technology assistant grants through the PRESENT, which is the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center, so we thought we might be able to get some support."

"We decided to go for it," Kitto added.

"The animation has great potential to help students understand a challenging concept because it is broken into so many steps," she said. "You can stop it anywhere you wish to think about what's happening."

Kitto and Griffiths announced the project in class one day and Christina Williams, then a senior, offered to help.

Currently a graduate student in plant molecular biology, Williams said she spent about 20 hours a week working on this project over the 2000 Winter Session. "It was a lot of fun because I learned some aspects of DNA technology that I was unaware of before I started the project," she said. "It's interesting how you understand things so much more clearly when you teach them to others."

Williams said she "did some library research first, then I drew the diagrams and added the text. I met with Dr. Kitto regularly in the beginning. After that we started to work with Becky Kinney, our animator, and she made further suggestions."

Kinney, who has an undergraduate degree in biology and a master's degree in education, was a Ph.D. student in education and a graduate assistant working in the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center when she worked on the animation. She currently is on a two-year leave of absence from the Ph.D. program, and spends 20 hours a week at the PRESENT assisting faculty with a variety of projects. Many of these projects include creating educational software, which Kinney said is "so much fun" and which she believes has "an important and immediate impact on education.

"It's difficult to describe my approach to creating the cartoon-like animation," Kinney said. "I started with a written script and some static graphics from Christina Williams. The original idea was that I would create interactive computer animations showing how each static graphic 'became' the next, synching the action with the narration. "In the end, I created virtually all my own graphics in order to be more consistent with the concepts we were trying to depict."

The team met once a week to review the status of the project, consider revisions and discuss goals for the following week. Later in the project, they welcomed Ralph Begleiter–the voice of the animation–onto their team. Begleiter is Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Communication.

"The genesis of this project is one of those 'accidents' of life," Begleiter said. "As a new faculty member, I was at a meeting of all those who had received student technology assistant grants and heard Sherry and Lesa say they were considering having a voice narrate an animation project they were working on. After the session, I whispered to them that I had been making a career out of radio and TV narration and would be glad to do their narration if they went ahead with their project. The rest is history."

Begleiter worked closely on editing and revising the text to be sure it both matched the on-screen animation and was understandable to the audience.

"I worked in close coordination with Becky Kinney, a tremendously talented animator," Begleiter said. "We made several revisions in the audio track and in the on-screen use interface."

The recording was captured digitally in the ITV studios in cooperation with Kathie Troutman, Information Technologies/University Media Services.

"This project was a huge collaborative effort," Griffiths said. "We were taking advantage of resources of the University at all levels from undergraduates to grad students through the technology people."

"Lesa and Sherry were incredible at coordinating talent from a variety of sources, including their honors students, fellow faculty members and staff, both at User Services and Media Services," Kinney added. "Our narrator, Professor Ralph Begleiter was terrific too. He made many excellent edits to the script itself, as well as being my most helpful tester, trying out early versions, spotting bugs. And the Media Services people produced very high quality sound files for me to import into Flash, much better than anything I could have done on my own.

"All in all, this was the most satisfying, enjoyable production process I have yet experienced," Kinney said.

Kitto said the animation project was made possible with the help of Janet de Vry and Paul Hyde from the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center.

The center helps faculty make effective use of established technologies, including web-based solutions, presentation applications and distance learning options to facilitate learning in the classroom, Kitto said.

De Vry said the student technology assistance program has assisted more than 30 faculty members thus far.

"We have assisted them with everything from creating PowerPoint slides to high-end programming such as we did for Sherry and Lesa," de Vry said. "We were fortunate to receive funding from the Unidel Foundation about two years ago to enable us to initiate the student technology assistant program. We are now seeking creative ways to continue the program since that funding has been exhausted."

The team completed the recombinant DNA technology animation last spring. It is online at [http://present.smith. udel.edu/biotech/] for students and interested web browsers curious about biotechnology. The lesson takes about 20 minutes to complete.

"Hopefully, this project will be the first in a series as we seek out continued funding," Kitto said. "There are so many challenging concepts in science that are difficult to teach in a lab because you can't see anything. You have to take molecular biology on faith. Narrated computer animation facilitates learning for so many individuals.

"It's the greatest thing since sliced bread," she added.

–Pat McAdams