Growing up literature; a sidetrip to the sciences. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.
Cell Defense? Invertebrate biology? Plant biology? In a series on language arts software? Good grief! The woman has taken leave of her senses. Well, perhaps, but we prefer to think of this month's departure from the norm as a change of pace. It also gives us a chance to cover some packages that don't fit into any of our regular education features. So don your lab coat and let's get going. Cell Defense
The cover of the Cell Defense package features a very unSpock-like Leonard Nimoy clad in a dark business suit inviting you to "explore the endless possibilities waiting for you in the world of science." Since we have sworn off language arts for the month, we will refrain from commenting on the meaninglessness of that sentence and move swiftly to the inside of the plastic binder where we find the disk and the documentation. Documentation
The documentation booklet is cleverly presented in the form of a science notebook. It has the familiar black and white marbled design on the cover, and inside, the "notes" that help you play the game are handwritten on lined pages.
Most of the space in the notebook is devoted to explanations of the various parts of the immune system. The types of cells with which you will be dealing in the game are described, as are the different defenses you can use against the invading viruses. Colorful sketches of cells and symbols decorate the margins and help you learn what to look for on the screen.
What the booklet does not do very well is tell you how to play the game. Having seen a very confusing demonstration of the program at a recent show, we were particularly careful to read the documentation thoroughly before trying to play the game. Even so, we lost quite a few patients before we caught on to the mechanics of play. Game Play
Cell Defense is a biology simulation in which you take control of different parts of the immune system and defend your cells against attack by evil, marauding viruses. You begin by specifying on a scale of 1 to 8 the number of cell layers, the virus infection rate, the cell regrowth rate, and the health of your organism. This is done with the joystick, and a click of the button starts the game.
At the left of the play screen you then see the outline of a human figure and, below it, a stylized representation of one cell layer. You use the joystick to move among the layers, and a flashing cursor tells you which of the cells in the layer is represented in the larger portion of the screen to the right.
As you move about in the cell layer, different cells occupy the screen; some of these are healthy and others are being attacked by viruses. Some of the defenses can be used to protect healthy cells, while others must be used aggressively against the viruses. Macrophages, for example, are handy for attacking loose viruses. If you see one on your screen, you can pick it up by moving the cursor over it and pressing the button. Then, if you come across a virus about to attack a healthy cell, you can, by passing the macrophage over it, destroy the virus. In reality, what usually happens is that you find a cell inhabited by the maximum number of viruses, and realizing that that cell is about to self-destruct, you wait until it explodes, setting the viruses free, and then gobble them up before they can do any futher damage. Meanwhile, of course, damage is occurring in other cells and in other layers.
The different kinds of cells that compose each layer vary in "value"; you can lose 59% of your labile cells and remain alive, but a loss of 40% of your perennial cells spells death.
As the game continues, both your progress in defending the organism and the progress of the viruses in debilitating it are represented graphically on the layer diagram at the left of the screen. As cells are destroyed, the outline of the organism fills up until either the critical number of destroyed cells is reached or the viruses are brought under control. Your success or failure duly noted, the program returns quickly to the opening screen, and you are given a chance to play again.
Play on all but the lowest levels is frenzied and stressful. We found ourselves physically exhausted after about an hour of play. As in life, you must be able to concentrate on more than one activity or event at a time, and you must be able to mke decisions quickly. Summary
Once we got the hang of it, we enjoyed Cell Defense. It has an addictive quality that makes you want to keep on playing, varying the difficulty level and testing new strategies as you become adept at saving the organism. The variety of difficulty levels makes it suitable for a wide range of ages, but only one person can play at a time.
So, it is fun. But is it educational? That depends on your definition of education. If your objective is to memorize the names and functions of the components of the immune system, you could probably accomplish that several times over with flash cards in the amount of time it would take you just to learn how to play Cell Defense.
If, however, you want to learn not only their names and functions but how they interact and what their interactions mean to the organisms they inhabit, Cell Defense will stand you in good stead. We also suspect that the understanding you acquire from playing cell defense will stay with you long after the conclusion of the next biology test.
On the negative side, the information to be learned is somewhat limited. If you happen to want to learn exactly the material covered by the simulation, Cell Defense is just what the doctor ordered. If you happen to need or want a different combination of facts, there is no way to modify or expand the program to make it more useful.
As an introduction to the workings of the immune system, Cell Defense is excellent. As an entertaining and challenging game, it also gets high marks. We just wish that the documentation were more specific in its description of the mechanics of game play.
We enjoyed reviewing the MicroFocus Keyword biology series. Dredging words like deliquescent and sporangiophore up from cold storage in our brains afforded us the same sort of satisfaction we get from playing Trivial Pursuit--the satisfaction of finally being rewarded publicly for learning a bit of information we thought we would never need after the final exam was turned in.
One of our young playtesters wh was in the throes of learning some of the botany terms in school felt similarly rewarded for her efforts. A second, who was in the same situation, thought that the whole thng was too much like work. Format
The biology series consists of keywords from vertebrate biology, invertebrate biology, plant biology, and human systems. We shall limit out discussion here to the plant biology disk, but the other programs in the series as well as programs that deal with the physical sciences (matter, energy, astronomy, and rocks and minerals) work in exactly the same way and have very similar documentation.
After the title screen on the Keyword disk, you choose a category of plant biology (algae, fungi, mosses and ferns, roots and stems, the leaf, higher plants, or plant reproduction). Next, you are asked to specify whether or not you want sound effects (gratuitous and time-consuming) and/Or instructions (helpful for first-time users, but not necessary). You must then tell the computer how many people (one, two, or three) will be playing and enter their names. The high score for the topic you have chosen is displayed, and play begins.
Each player starts with 100 points. On the first turn of the round, the screen displays one clue and a series of dashes representing letters in the keyword. If the first player cannot type the correct word, he can press the spacebar for another clue, and if he still cannot guess correctly, play passes to the next player.
A typical round might begin with 10 blanks at the bottom of the screen and "years" displayed as clue #1. As the game progresses, the words "many," "lily," "tree," and "grass" appear as clues, and at some point we deduce that the keyword is "perennial."
For each clue (including letters in the blanks) requested, the player loses a specified number of points depending on the length of the keyword (10 for a short word, 8 or 9 for a longer one). If he makes an incorrect guess or spells the keyword wrong while guessing, he losses half of his points.
After each round (keyword identified), players are asked if they want to continue. Assuming that they don4t elect to quit, play continues until one player's point total reaches zero or all the keywords in the category ar identified. If the winner's score is the highest to date, it is recorded on disk.
The number of keywords in each category varies between nine and 12, a fact that may limit the usefulness of the program. Barry Kasven, speaking for Focus Media, told us that the keywords were taken from the most popular science curricular currently being used in U.S. schools, but we found the number just a bit too small. After the second or third time through a category, players could identify most words on the first or second clue, simply because they recognized the combination of the first few clues and the length of the word. Documentation
The documentation booklet is an 8 1/2" X 11" typewritten "Lesson Planner." In the introduction, vocabulary building, spelling, patterning, and abstract thinking are offered as objectives. Kasven noted that slower students usually benefit from the program primarily through learning the spelling and definitions of the words. More advanced students, he said, enjoy the deductive reasoning process that is required to achieve a high score.
Also included in the booklet are very complete instructions for loading the program and a description of game play and rules. White not exactly a professional job graphically or typographically, the manual is quite adequate. Summary
The MicroFocus Keyword series is clearly designed for classroom use, and is undoubtedly best suited for that environment. There is no reason it could not be used in the home, except that one or two students would soon master all the words on the disk and retire it -- perhaps before squeezing $39 worth of good from it.
This entire series falls into our recently defined category of "no-frills drill and practice." The program offers neither tutorial material nor inspiring graphics. The simple game format does, however, provide sufficient motivation to keep students involved.
For enrichment, remediation, or review in the classroom, the MicroFocus Keyword series is a good choice.
Products: Cell Defense (computer program)
MicroFocus Biology Keyword Series (computer program)