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No, says Manbi: "We're focusing on environmental impact statements" — though my catastrophic question may haven given him ideas: "That should be part of this."

Once it's complete, Second Life's first nuclear reactor will be quite the teaching tool — even though DU at first had little to do with it.

"We didn't have any support from the university," says Amme. "Partially, Jeff saw that coming. That's why he went ahead and bought the first island on his own."

Jeff Corbin put the University of Denver on the Second Life map
Tony Gallagher
Jeff Corbin put the University of Denver on the Second Life map
Corbin's avatar, zazen Manbi, in black.
Corbin's avatar, zazen Manbi, in black.

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For a short history of nuclear power in Colorado, read the Latest Word blog at westword.com/news.

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Administrators and professors were still reluctant even when Corbin erected Olin Hall and Meyer-Womble Observatory on his own time and dime. No DU class uses the virtual Olin Hall's auditorium, and no link-up is planned between the simulated telescope and the real one.

"This is something new and something different, and I think whenever you have that, there is a whole continuum of enthusiasm about it ranging from overly optimistic and hopeful to unduly unhopeful and pessimistic," says John Hill, director of environmental policy and management for DU's distance-learning program. "The fact is, we haven't yet established whether it is an effective mode of education."

But last year, as nuclear power experienced an upswing in popularity in the face of the growing worldwide energy crisis, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission began looking ways to train people on the hugely complex environmental impact assessments required for new U.S. nuclear power plants. In response, Amme, Corbin and DU physics professor Zeev Shayer proposed a distance-learning master's degree program where some of the physics experiments — usually impossible to simulate in online courses — would be conducted in a virtual physics lab on Science Island. This would also allow students to access and work with simulated versions of potentially hazardous and expensive radioactive materials. Finally, the distance learners could even go on field trips — to a virtual nuclear reactor.

Soon the Science School had real funding, part of a $200,000 grant the NRC awarded DU's University College, a distance-learning and continuing-education school, to develop the master's program. Now Corbin is overseeing the creation of a virtual physics wing by a professional Second Life "construction company": Aimee Weber Studio, a virtual world-content developer that works mostly for government agencies and charges on average $25,000 to $30,000 a project.

Regular Joes like Corbin could build it all themselves, says Aimee Weber over the phone from New Jersey, but, she adds, "there is a different level of quality between a Hollywood blockbuster and a homemade film.

"A nuclear reactor is something I have wanted to do for a while," Weber continues. "Very few people have the opportunity to go inside a nuclear reactor. Suppose you have security clearance and you go into a nuclear power plant. If you are talking about getting next to a nuclear power core, you really can't do that, unless you have a death wish."

Weber is basing the power plant on a cardboard model Amme and Corbin obtained of a real reactor in Finland, while her chief technical officer Brian Mobbs is developing working Geiger-Müller counters, gamma-ray spectrometers and other gadgets for the physics lab. The project is almost complete; a few more experiments need to be built and the power plant control room has to be copied and pasted into place. Classes may begin next semester, and will include non-Second Life alternatives for students who don't want or don't have the tech capabilities (a high-speed Internet connection and a computer with at least 512 megabytes of memory) to run the program — though, as Amme says, "Their experience will not be as rich."

Now others at DU seem to be paying attention. "Can you imagine if we really succeed, if we get twenty students into this laboratory to do physics experiments?" says Hill excitedly. "Putting them into a nuclear control room and letting them do things and destroy things and not letting them get hurt? Think of what this means. Imagine how powerful this can be for education."

But not everyone was thrilled when the story hit the online newspaper Inside Higher Ed last year. "Second Life isn't stable enough to test something that important," one commenter wrote. "Why not make a program that will actually simulate that properly? Second Life doesn't even stand up to normal 'game' quality. It can't even properly simulate a car."

Second Life's graphics and social buzz may be so 2006, but as Corbin points out, it's powerful and user-friendly enough that institutions around the world, from Oakland University in Michigan to Imperial College London, are using it — with notable results. There are reportedly over a hundred parts of Second Life dedicated to educational purposes (mostly post-secondary education, considering the age restrictions), and more than 80 percent of British universities are said to have a presence in the game.

"This is exactly the kind of environment you can construct for teaching," says Mary Anne Clark, a biology professor at Texas Wesleyan University who's using the program with her students. "It is so interactive, you can make it attractive, and it is social. You have the same kind of social interactions you would have in a classroom. You also get the increased flexibility you get from online courses."

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