Interactive Learning = Advancing Science

I came across an interesting link the other day, and it reminded me a little bit of the benefits of gamification because:

1) It’s fun (it’s a game).
2) It involves learning through hands on activities.
3) It’s score based (so it has a bit of a competitive element).

But here’s the part that really made my eyes pop out of my head: by playing this game you are actually advancing science. Woah.

The game is called foldit. Have you heard of it?

The purpose of the game is to interactively move around protein molecules into a configuration that puts them in their lowest energy state. The lower the energy of your molecule, the higher your score in the game. Molecules in real life will tend to exist in their lowest energy state. Once scientists figure out the shapes of the bad proteins that are involved in diseases, they can create other proteins to combat the bad ones!

foldit Screenshot

The only problem is, proteins are really complicated. Devising a program that will systematically solve for all of the degrees of freedom in a really complicated protein would be extremely time consuming. The solution? Use people! People are great problem solvers. So, a bunch of scientists decided to set up a game where players can figure out the protein shapes just like a puzzle.

The craziest part of all: it actually worked. Recently, the people behind foldit released a journal article discussing how players of the game were able to discover the actual shape of a protein that causes AIDS in monkeys.

I think it might be neat to introduce this game in a biology class. Students could get a ‘hands on’ feel for hydrogen bonds, amino acids as building blocks, hydrophobic and hydrophilic portions of the molecule and how this all relates to the interactions with other parts of the molecule. The only issue I will say after spending some time with this game: it’s kind of hard. The intro puzzles would probably be useful to play within class and would generate some discussion, but working up to the really complicated puzzles might take a bit of time.

Here’s one that I’ve really caught on to: Moon Zoo. It’s not actually a competitive game, but it’s another one that relies on input from participants to advance science (cue Space Odyssey music). Basically, you are shown a bunch of zoomed in photos of the moon (taken by the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter) and you are asked to pick out craters (larger than a certain size) as well as other interesting features.

Moon Zoo Screenshot

This one might be neat to introduce to a science class after talking about the evolution of the solar system. By using the data from Moon Zoo, astronomers are going to get a really great picture of the moon’s history and age. A much better picture, it turns out, than if computers alone were used to pick out the features! It tickles me to my geeky core to think that I’m looking at a part of the moon – up close – that very few people have seen.

Oh, and it you’re really lucky you might get to spot a landing site, or one of the rocket stages from the Apollo missions that crashed on the moon.

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5 thoughts on “Interactive Learning = Advancing Science

  1. Jacquie says:

    I really like the idea of this! I have never been very good at science…but reading about these games make me want to try them. Sometimes learning just needs to be fun…

  2. Thanks for sharing this resource – and for applying to a pedagogy – the gamification of learning. This is a hot topic right now for sure.
    I love that your “geeky core” can not only see the learning potential for these sites, but that you can also see how this applies to a bigger picture.
    I wonder, will you include these tools into your own coursework when presenting to your colleagues ( the group projects….)? Will you include these methods in your internship?

  3. MzMollyTL says:

    Ironic – just this weekend my husband came to report, very excitedly, that those “prove you’re a human by typing this word” security codes are actually part of a project to help teach computers to “read” old-fashioned words so that they can continue to digitize early 20th century magazines and newspapers that use words that aren’t used often anymore. It really feels purposeful beyond just security (or the classroom). Let us know if you find any other great sites like these. It sounds like the two you mention may be too hard for my K-8s, but there may be others out there I don’t know about. (I like Free Rice as “charity gaming” – have you heard of it?)

  4. emsheridan says:

    Thanks for the comment, Zoe. I would love to include some of these tools in the classroom once I’m working with a high school class! I would like to include it in my microteaching lesson, but I’m already struggling to keep it under the time limit (gah, only 15 minutes)…
    Jacquie, I totally agree that learning should be fun!
    MzMolly, if computers are learning how to decipher those codes, I bet they’re already better at it than me (I never seem to get those on the first try!) I think Moon Zoo might be appropriate for an intermediate class, since it just involves picking out craters with a circle tool – but foldit is a little on the tricky side. I’m going to have to look up “Free Rice”. That sounds interesting!

  5. I’ve also been looking into gamification a lot recently. Your examples really showed the power of making things fun. I bet that if foldit wasn’t made in a game format that it would be nowhere near as popular is it turned out to be!

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