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Stumped by a term or want to know more about the function of an organ in your biology book? Researchers have developed an electronic textbook that can answer all of your questions.

There’s so much to understand in science textbooks: thousands of new phrases and terms, concepts and processes. A lot of times these educational tools leave more questions than answers.

So Vulcan founder Paul Allen and colleagues developed Inquire, an iPad application designed to break down key words and concepts in a digital textbook.

Highlight a term and you get sent to an AI-generated glossary that offers a longer, easier to understand definition. Not sure about a biological process? Type in a question and Inquire builds a unique page with an answer and an explanation.

The Inquire website states:

"Inquire encourages 'active reading' by defining key terms and suggesting questions that prompt the student to reflect on what she's reading. Later as she's doing homework, Inquire helps by answering the student’s specific questions, linking to related content, and enabling her to dive deep into a topic without having to worry about the accuracy or relevance of the information."

The system was designed specifically for Campbell Biology, the standard book for first-year biology students in university and advanced high school students.

Inquire was recently tested out on biology students from De Anza College who either used the electronic or paper version of the textbook to study for four hours, complete a homework assignment and take a closed book quiz.

Students using Inquire scored a full letter grade higher than participants in the paper textbook groups. And none of the participants who used Inquire received a D or F grade, although some students in the control group did.

So could this be the new wave of digital textbooks? Although the system does have potential, some say that it is impractical because of all the time needed to encode all of the information in a textbook.

New Scientist reports:

"While such results are promising, perhaps it's a little soon to crown Inquire the future of textbooks. For starters, after two years of work the system is still only half-finished. The team plan to encode the rest of the 1400-page Campbell Biology by the end of 2013, but they expect a team of 18 biologists will be needed to do so. This raises concerns about whether the project could be expanded to cover other areas of science, let alone other subjects."

For now it looks like students are left with the good old textbook and Google search and other online tools close by their side.

Via New Scientist

Amy Kraft

Weekend Editor

Contributing Editor Amy Kraft is a freelance writer based in New York. She has written for New Scientist and DNAinfo and has produced podcasts for Scientific American's 60-Second-Science. She holds degrees from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure