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Interactive Web-based game "Outbreak!" helps students learn microbiology skills

In an image from the interactive Web-based game "Outbreak!", Nicole Clark, daughter of Larry and Sherri Clark of Las Cruces, models as a young patient infected during an outbreak of an unknown disease, while NBIF scientist Mike Strand plays the role of a physician

A team of biologists and computer scientists at the National Biotechnology Information Facility (NBIF) has developed an interactive World Wide Web-based computer game to teach high school and college students the clinical diagnostic methodologies and skills used in microbiology.

Called "Outbreak!", the game is being made available free of charge by the NBIF, which is based at New Mexico State University. Sherri Clark, NBIF outreach education and workshop coordinator, introduced the game to teachers from across the country at the National Science Teachers Association Convention held in Boston in late March.

"Outbreak!" can be played at three levels of difficulty, with the player assuming the role of a student laboratory technician, a laboratory technician or a medical technologist. The player is assigned a sample from a patient with symptoms matching those of a current illness outbreak and must identify the organism causing the outbreak within a reasonable amount of game time.

"The game assumes some knowledge of microbiology," Clark said. It is aimed at advanced high school students and college students who have had an introduction to microbiology and techniques of bacterial growth and identification.

To identify the culprit in "Outbreak!" the player must choose the appropriate culture media and biochemical tests. The game will return results of the cultures and tests, and the player must properly interpret the results to identify the microbe present in the sample.

To add interest and realism, as the game progresses the player receives updates from the laboratory supervisor and is able to read newspaper articles about the progress of the outbreak.

When the causative agent is identified, a final report is generated by the computer providing a final score for the game, the name of the organism causing the outbreak, the correct procedure for identifying the organism and the procedure followed by the player.

"We haven't found many games of this quality that run over the Internet," Clark said. "Most of them require a lot of plug-ins (special software applications). We designed this one so that it doesn't need them, to make it accessible to more people."

"Outbreak!" is accessible to all World Wide Web users at http://www.nbif.org/outbreak.

NMSU student Gabriel Rivera examines bacterial culture plates from the interactive Web-based game.

Soon after its introduction, "hits" on the NBIF Web site soared to more than 30,000 in a single day, Clark said.

The game was developed in a matter of months by NBIF scientists and NMSU students. "The development of this game provides a tremendous opportunity for students and staff from widely disparate disciplines to work together, exposing them to the concepts of biotechnology and possibly leading to a career in the field" for some of the students, said Edward Burlbaw, head of the NBIF.

"Outbreak!" is based on a concept originated by Donald Bustamante, head of Computational and Information Technologies at NBIF, and Clark. "The team has developed a commercial-quality product on a very ambitious production schedule," Bustamante said. "The students' level of performance in this effort was outstanding and rivals that of professionals with many years' experience."

The development team included NBIF scientists Sean O'Brien, Reid Hayhow and Mike Strand, and NBIF student employees William English, Ephraim Ford, Chris Hoxworth, Vishnu Govindarajulu, Patrick McDougle, Sanjeev Nirmalakhanden, Gabriel Rivera and Teresa Wildman. Medical technologists serving as consultants for "Outbreak!" are Karen Martinez of Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces and Patricia Davis of Wayne Memorial Hospital in Goldsboro, N.C.

The National Biotechnology Information Facility, funded by the U.S. Army Research Office, was established to encourage information sharing by researchers in academia, industry and the Department of Defense. It also promotes biotechnology at institutions designated as Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Institutions.

The NBIF provides a single-point access to a vast store of biotechnology data and is developing new sources and types of biotechnology databases. For more information on NBIF, contact Edward Burlbaw at National Biotechnology Information Facility, MSC 3548, New Mexico State University, Box 30002, Las Cruces, NM 88003, telephone (505) 522-9350.

Karl Hill