Jeremy Friedberg began his career with a few lumps of plasticine. In the late 1990s, he was a young graduate student studying molecular genetics and biotechnology and teaching an introductory biology class at the University of Guelph in Canada. Hoping both to educate and entertain his students, he brought the plasticine clay to class. The undergrads rolled it out on their desks, making wormy simulations of chromosomes, then peeled them apart: cellular mitosis with an art-studio twist. "It was the first time I could see my students excited," Friedberg recalls.
More than a decade later, Friedberg is still merging learning and play. He now co-runs the Toronto-based educational gaming company Spongelab Interactive. The company's suite of games "Genomics Digital Lab: Cell Biology" won top honors in Science magazine's 2009 Visualization Challenge. This year, Friedberg and colleagues nabbed an honorable mention for their anatomy lab tool, "Build-a-Body."
Like Friedman's ventures with plasticine, Spongelab's games are designed to be tactile and fun while teaching students problem-solving skills and to think for themselves. That do-it-yourself education style is something he says has gone missing from many science classrooms. "That's what we're competing against," Friedberg says. "We're not producing students coming out of the education system with critical thinking and creativity skills."
Friedberg began molding his unique career after a fortuitous meeting with a scientist who encouraged hands-on experimentation over rote learning. One day when he was an undergraduate at the University of Western Ontario, Friedberg waylaid plant geneticist David Walden in the hallway. Friedberg had been panicking over a genetics exam a few days away and hoped to ask a quick question. But Walden, who Friedberg says brought an unusual gusto to the topic, wasn't content to provide an answer and move on. He insisted that Friedman figure it out on his own. The two spent two-and-a-half hours tucked into a quiet classroom until Friedberg mastered the basic concepts.
Inspired, Friedberg began filling Petri dishes in Walden's lab. Eventually, he enrolled as a graduate student at Guelph and set his sights on a research project close to Walden's heart: understanding how crop plants, such as alfalfa, respond on the genetic level to Canada's cold weather.
When he started teaching genetics, Friedberg sought to dazzle his students like his old mentor did. Unfortunately, he says, "I was horrible at it." He got used to seeing blank looks on his pupils' faces. His mind jumped back to his own undergraduate days and to "being in a class and feeling like, ‘Oh God, get me out of there.' " Then, one of his colleagues in the department gave him a fateful piece of advice: Try plasticine.
Clay, however, has limitations. Friedberg, who was becoming obsessed with visualization, needed more modern and versatile tools. So he turned to animation. He plowed through tutorials for the Web software Macromedia Flash. His first renderings of chromosomes separating during mitosis weren't much more sophisticated than his earlier plasticine worms. "They were not pretty," he says.
Still, he recognized the potential of visualization -- and visualization software -- as a tool for teaching science. Andria Jones Bitton, an epidemiologist now at the University of Guelph's veterinary school, served with Friedberg on Guelph's student government. The two became acquainted. She remembers watching his animations come together. Friedberg understood something about his students that others missed, Bitton says: He "recognized that not everybody could learn the things they were teaching in traditional biology classes from a textbook or in 2D."
In his first big presentation to a scientific audience, Friedberg included a short animation that illustrated a genetic network important to alfalfa's stress response. Hands flew up after his talk. But "not one question was about my research," he says. The audience just wanted to know how he'd made that nifty video.
By the time Friedberg began writing his dissertation, he had formed his own business creating custom Web site designs and animations for fellow researchers. After receiving his Ph.D. in 2003, he turned his attention to games.
In the years that followed, Friedberg designed some misfires. In "The Light Reaction Game," one of Spongelab's first products, players were challenged to finish a puzzle by connecting components important to photosynthesis in a plant leaf. It could become a passive point-and-click exercise, Friedberg says, letting students squeak by without learning what, for instance, Photosystem II does. "I've learned from and made a lot of mistakes along the way," he says.
Today, Spongelab's much wider portfolio includes a range of interactive software, including "The Glycolysis Game," in which metabolism-minded players explore how cells break down sugar. In "Transcription Hero," they can learn about DNA by wielding a "Guitar Hero" controller to code nucleotides. Students and teachers from more than 120 countries have surfed through these and other Spongelab-developed products online.
Some of them, such as "Build-a-Body," seem more like a lab project than a video game.
Here, 8th-to-12th-graders plop together the varied pieces of human anatomy, from the cerebellum down to the kidneys. It's a lot like Friedberg's earlier light-reaction puzzles, but now he makes sure students can't click away without learning something about the colon. Players are forced to diagnose illnesses such as celiac disease, conducting their own research on the side.
Other games, such as "History of Biology," aim to hook students by giving them a tour through science's past. Launched early last year, the game is an immersive mystery much like "Myst," the classic 1993 PC game. Players take on the role of a research assistant and follow clues left behind by an eccentric biologist who disappeared days before receiving a Nobel Prize.
In leaving the bench and turning to education games, Friedberg dropped one academic subject but picked up another: the science of play. He now follows that literature as closely as he used to follow the latest papers in molecular genetics, he says.
"We have a stigma around the word 'game'," Friedberg says. People believe they're distractions only. But games can also be motivating. The precursors of chess, he notes, once were used to teach young men military strategy.
From Atari to Nintendo or the latest Xbox console, game designers have learned that joystick fiends will toil and sweat to nab the most coins or destroy the most aliens to land a spot on the leader board. Spongelab focuses on those same "little numbers in the corner," he says. In "Build-a-Body," players tally points for dropping in the lymph nodes to complete the circulatory system. Accumulated points can be redeemed for more Spongelab games -- none of the games cost real money -- or earn discounts on science-themed merchandise. This points-based strategy works, too, Friedberg says: On a deep level, "we're all gamers."
Friedberg hasn't abandoned the teaching philosophy he borrowed from Walden years ago. In Spongelab's games, players figure out the science on their own. When the research-assistant-cum-sleuth at the center of "History of Biology" needs to decode a clue by using Robert Hooke's famous elasticity equation, gamers have to look the equation up.
In other words, give a kid or an adult a challenge -- maybe some nice graphics and a guitar-shaped controller -- and they'll concentrate like they're trying to save the princess. "There's no difference between work and play," Friedberg says. It's an apt life lesson for a guy who's taken his cues from plasticine models.
Daniel Strain is a writer living in Washington, D.C.