Health & Wellness Science & Technology Society & Culture

UGA grant helps students understand diabetes through virtual gaming

Scott Brown

Athens, Ga. – When Scott Brown thinks about the future of education, he sees his undergraduate students taking notes on tablets and looking at 3-D models while maneuvering textbook pages with the flick of a finger.

Brown imagines veterinary offices running the same way, with providers using handheld tablets to show pet owners exactly what is wrong with their animals and how procedures will help them.

“Technology is going to be everywhere, even more than now,” said Brown, professor of physiology and pharmacology and small animal medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “We need to be at the cutting edge. We’ll fail in our teaching approaches otherwise.”

Brown received a $525,000, five-year grant to design, create and test interactive gaming technology that helps undergraduate students learn more about renal and cardiovascular physiology, diabetes and obesity by acting as virtual scientists studying renal physiology in a virtual research laboratory.

Funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the software will allow students to learn kidney functions by watching molecules interact and investigating tubular processes at microscopic levels. Students will also work on three digital case studies, allowing them to virtually examine renal and cardiac function of both healthy patients and those suffering from kidney disease and heart disease.

“We’ve historically used textbooks, lectures and presentations with comparatively simple graphics, but science is very 3-D,” Brown said. “When students are growing up and playing immersive games at home, there’s an expectation for high-quality graphics, and we need to mirror that.”

Brown, the Edward H. Gunst Professor of Small Animal Studies and a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor, along with fellow physiology and pharmacology associate professor Tom Robertson and large animal medicine and surgery professor Jim Moore, another Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, are the content experts for the project. They’ve teamed with Allan S. Cohen, Aderhold Professor of Research Methodology and director of the Georgia Center for Assessment in the College of Education, and Casey O’Donnell, a gaming expert and telecommunications professor at Michigan State University, to test and analyze the programs they develop. Several members of the group have created various 3-D textbooks, videos and games to teach basic scientific concepts, such as osmosis, filtration, and diffusion to elementary school, high school and undergraduate students around the state.

“As faculty members we want to produce enhanced teaching materials, and it takes a large amount of experience, time and effort to do so,” Brown said. “We need experts who know digital artwork, medical illustration and computer programming, and we’re able to include that expertise on our team.”

Brown uses a dialysis case study in his First Year Odyssey course where students “fly into” a dialysis machine to treat a patient. As part of the class, he encourages the 15 students to discuss aspects of health care systems and public health policy, particularly the costs to individuals and society. As a nephrologist, Brown focuses on Type 2 diabetes and kidney failure in the class, and he includes discussions about obesity and chronic diseases.

“The financial burden of diabetes is astronomical, and it’s rising dramatically,” he said. “Even if the current obesity trend hits a plateau, diabetes follows the onset of obesity by 10 to 20 years, so we will have this problem for decades to come. We need tools to help young people understand this.”

The research project is funded by the NIH grant 1R25DK094760 – 01A1.

UGA Obesity Initiative
The University of Georgia Obesity Initiative addresses the growing epidemic of adult and childhood obesity and its related diseases. UGA combines instruction and research activities with its public service and outreach components to develop obesity prevention and treatment programs that interested Georgia communities, employers and health care providers can implement to improve the health of Georgia’s citizens and decrease the cost of health care in the state. See for more information.

The UGA College of Veterinary Medicine
The UGA College of Veterinary Medicine, founded in 1946, is dedicated to training future veterinarians, to conducting research related to animal and human diseases, and to providing veterinary services for animals and their owners. Research efforts are aimed at enhancing the quality of life for animals and people, improving the productivity of poultry and livestock, and preserving a healthy interface between wildlife and people in the environment they share. The college enrolls 102 students each fall out of more than 800 who apply. For more information, see