Several abstract concepts in medical education are difficult to teach and comprehend. In order to address this challenge, we have been applying the approach of reification of abstract concepts using interactive virtual environments and a knowledge-based design. Reification is the process of making abstract concepts and events, beyond the realm of direct human experience, concrete and accessible to teachers and learners. Entering virtual worlds and simulations not otherwise easily accessible provides an opportunity to create, study, and evaluate the emergence of knowledge and comprehension from the direct interaction of learners with otherwise complex abstract ideas and principles by bringing them to life. Using a knowledge-based design process and appropriate subject matter experts, knowledge structure methods are applied in order to prioritize, characterize important relationships, and create a concept map that can be integrated into the reified models that are subsequently developed. Applying these principles, our interdisciplinary team has been developing a reified model of the nephron into which important physiologic functions can be integrated and rendered into a three dimensional virtual environment called Flatland, a virtual environments development software tool, within which a learners can interact using off-the-shelf hardware. The nephron model can be driven dynamically by a rules-based artificial intelligence engine, applying the rules and concepts developed in conjunction with the subject matter experts. In the future, the nephron model can be used to interactively demonstrate a number of physiologic principles or a variety of pathological processes that may be difficult to teach and understand. In addition, this approach to reification can be applied to a host of other physiologic and pathological concepts in other systems. These methods will require further evaluation to determine their impact and role in learning.
Studies in health technology and informatics 02/2006; 119:13-8.