Carey Phillips, a biology professor at Bowdoin College, is in the process of acquiring an island to help his students recreate and study a Greek colony in its heyday 2,300 years ago. The colony actually existed, while the island will be part of Second Life—a 3-D virtual community inhabited by thousands of “avatars,” or computer representations of real people. Phillips sees Second Life as having great potential as an educational platform that capitalizes on the Internet's connectivity. The project is funded, in part, by an HHMI grant to Bowdoin.
Phillips is working with students at Bowdoin and other universities around the globe to recreate Chersonesos, an ancient Greek outpost on the Black Sea in what is now Ukraine. “One of the basic goals,” says Phillips, “is to develop new informatics tools and approaches that allow students to integrate information across disciplines,” not unlike the process of writing one's own blog. Moreover, “students will form teams and interact with faculty experts, within the virtual world, who serve as consultants,” as if they were all involved in an advanced collaborative form of open-access interaction.
Chersonesos is a unique quirk of history. It was burned and abandoned
around A.D. 1200 and then left untouched; unlike the history of most other
ancient sites, subsequent populations did not build over its foundations.
And it largely escaped modern notice because it sat next to the off-limits
environs of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. Since the U.S.S.R.'s demise, however,
local archeologists have unearthed thousands of artifacts, from decorated
sarcophagi to mosaic floors to household items made of blue glass.
Students will use geospatial data provided by the University of Texas at
Austin to rebuild the town, as well as its agricultural economic base, in
Second Life. “The surrounding farmland has been cored, and we have
3,000 years' worth of data from which to study the evolution of various
cultivars based on planting practices, human impact, and cultural [and]
historical events,” says Phillips.
The citizens of Chersonesos also practiced an early form of democracy.
Through their avatars, students will set up a government on the island and
solve problems presented by Phillips and other teachers. “We will record
all the virtual chat by participants and use software developed by the
military to assess the evolution of group sophistication as they interact,” Phillips says. “I will then work with a group at Amherst College to use this data to develop better educational tools within immersive virtual environments.”