Galaxy quest

Galaxy quest

Computer scientists, animators illuminate the universe through videos, games

Learn about Immanuel Kant’s "Island UniverseS" or galaxy hypothesis in the student-produced video. Other videos and games can be found on the SciVi web site.

When Grigor Dzhambazyan strolls into the computer animation lab for weekly project meetings Thursdays, he knows the day’s lesson just might come from a fellow student.

Open dialogue, brainstorming and peer critiques among fellow art and animation students, as well as those studying computer science, physics and astronomy fuel the learning and working environment, he said.

“The collaboration makes everything better,” said Dzhambazyan, who is finishing up his bachelor’s degree in art with an option in animation. “One of the best things is you get to have multiple viewpoints.”

‘Flying’ away with online education

Would you like to conduct genetics experiments, like mating fruit flies, without getting your hands dirty?

If so, Biological Professor Robert Desharnais might have the answer for you. Desharnais has played a prominent role in the development of hands-on, inquiry-based science lessons that use computers as the stage for lab experiments and scientific discovery.

“I’ve always been one of these geeks that likes to play with computers. Ever since I was in graduate school I did a lot of that stuff,” Desharnais said. “This is one of those ways to do that and reach a lot of people.”

Technology, he says, has expanded the learning opportunity and enabled classes to conduct experiments that were hands-off before because of time limitations and safety concerns.

One of his most recognized accomplishments is the Virtual FlyLab, virtual courseware that teaches the principles of genetics. Virtual FlyLab, a Cal State L.A. web site, has served as a model for other web-based applications, including CSU's, that teach science concepts, including global warming, virtual dating and earthquakes.

Desharnais is currently working in partnership with Cal State L.A. Biology and Education Professor Paul Narguizian, under a $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant, to develop more virtual courseware. The free programs available at allow students to develop hypotheses, conduct experiments and test their theories on everything from genetic inheritance to geological patterns online.

Dzhambazyan, about a dozen other students and three faculty members – Milan Mijic of Physics and Astronomy, Tony Longson of Art, and Eun-Young Elaine Kang of Computer Science – came together to create SciVi.

SciVi is a National Science Foundation-funded project that trains students from the three disciplines to work together and develop movies, computer games and interactive activities in a fun and engaging way. The project, formally known as the Integrated Training Pipeline for Scientific Visualization, is run at Cal State L.A. in collaboration with Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both Charter College of Education faculty Manisha Javeri and Simeon Slovacek monitor and evaluate the project.

“It’s the single most exciting thing I have done in my academic career,” said Longson.

“The idea is so successful, I wish we could market it,” he added.

Mijic, Longson and Kang have been running the SciVi project on campus since Sept. 2006. Each year they introduce a new cohort of students who commit 10 to 15 hours weekly to design and build interactive and animated videos and games to tell the stories about the fundamental concepts and discoveries in cosmology. In exchange for their time, the students receive a stipend, tuition assistance, and exposure to a “real world” work environment. The research grants also allow them to travel to professional meetings and workshops.

In all, about 40 students have participated in the project.

“It’s been a really good opportunity for all of them because it’s so multidisciplinary,” said Kang. “They have really learned a lot.”

So far, the group has animated Immanuel Kant’s hypothesis of “The Island Universes” - the idea that stars are organized in huge clouds, or galaxies, that fill out the Universe - and Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery of an important property of variable stars, known as “Cepheids,” that turned them into tools to determine distances to galaxies. Currently, students are at work on the story of how astronomers Hubble, Slipher and Humason determined that the universe is expanding.

Visitors to the SciVi site, can lose themselves in the stars and learn through the student-produced games and videos. Just imagine learning about Einstein’s relativity theory in a game where you shoot your partner off into space to give yourself time to age and prepare for marriage.