PlayGen's NanoMission

A London video game maker is making nanotechnology child's play and developing tomorrow's scientists in the process

The Confederation of British Industry figures the country needs an extra 2.4 million new chemists, physicists, engineers, and lab technicians by 2014 to meet growing demand from industry for high-tech workers. Yet the number of graduates in physics, engineering, and technology in Britain is actually falling.

The same is true across Europe. Without urgent action, warns a European Commission advisory group, the European Union will fall well short of the additional 500,000 researchers it needs by 2010. Meanwhile the U.S. increasingly is relying on foreign students to fix its science gap.

Hooking Kids Early

Enter London-based computer games studio PlayGen and global nanotechnology consultancy Cientifica, which have teamed up to produce NanoMission, a series of 3D educational games meant to teach and inspire 12-year-old to 16-year-old kids about nanotechnology, an emerging science of manipulating materials and devices at the atomic scale that has the potential to revolutionize fields such as medicine.

The shortage of engineers and mathematicians starts long before students pick their college course load. "The next generation of scientists need to be inspired before they go to university," says PlayGen Managing Director Kam Memarzia, an architect by training who started designing computer games for fun when he was just 12 years old. PlayGen's goal is to create games that hold their own against popular crash-and-burn console titles, using the video game medium to engage junior high and high school students in real-life scientific scenarios.

Despite the billions of dollars invested by governments and companies around the world in nanotechnology and the field's huge potential impact on society, many people have little or no understanding of it. It doesn't help that nanotechnology cuts across many topics in the science curriculum, making it hard to cover as a whole. To help the process, PlayGen is making PC versions of the games freely available to schools in the U.S. and Britain, and plans are under way for French and German versions. The U.S.'s National Science Foundation is lending its support to NanoMission by posting information about the games on its portal.

Let the Games Begin

Three NanoMission games have been developed so far. The first, called NanoScale, helps kids learn about the size of everything from a molecule to the planet Jupiter. The second, called NanoImaging, sponsored by FEI (FEIC), a U.S. company that makes nanotech tools, centers on a story about an environmental disaster that is affecting the world's freshwater lakes and is threatening drinking water. In the game, a scanning electron microscope lets scientists identify the extremely small organisms that are to blame.

A third game, about NanoMedicine, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, an organization that supports health-related projects, illustrates how nanomedicine is developing new ways of delivering anti-cancer drugs. PlayGen is looking for sponsors of other game modules it wants to develop about topics such as nanotechnology for semiconductors and nanoelectronics, quantum theory and quantum computing, and nanomaterials and self-assembly.

The advisory board for the games project features a who's who of well-known scientists, including Mark Welland, director of Nanoscience at the University of Cambridge; Richard Jones, a professor of physics at the University of Sheffield and a frequent writer on nanotechnology; Wolfgang Luther, head of nanotechnologies at VDI, the Association of German Engineers; and nanomedicine expert Kostas Kostarelos, deputy head of the center for drug delivery research at the University of London's School of Pharmacy.

To learn more about NanoMission, view our slideshow.

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