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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Learning Happens

This week I learned about the concept of gamification for learning. An idea that says: Hey, learning happens all the time in life so why not make it explicitly fun and meaningful?

I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t think it’s necessary to have learning activities always labelled as ‘learning activities’. If they’re fun to do and you happen to learn something from it, I can’t see a down side to that. Life, it seems to me, is just one giant unlabelled learning activity. Learning happens.

Life doesn’t come with warning labels. (Except this one, which I just made.)

learning warning

Where would you put it?

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Google for Teachers

Did you know that Google’s informal motto is ‘Don’t be evil’?

Pretty amazing motto, right? As I’ve been learning more this week about the technology available out there to assist teachers in the classroom, I’ve been put onto some Google products that are incredibly useful to teachers. My conclusion: Google seems to be on the right track to maintaining that motto.

First of all, I started watching some helpful screencasts posted in iTunes that explain some specific Google products. The guy who made them is John Sowash and you can subscribe to his podcasts called Google Tools. They’re clear and very straightforward. I haven’t watched them all yet, but they’re super informative.

So, after I watched a couple of videos, I was ready to play with the tools.

The first one was iGoogle. With iGoogle, you can centralize everyday information like your calendar, the weather, some rss feeds that you require to start your day, your email, and your virtual hamster. I thought this might be handy for me, since, among other things, I want to follow a number of teacher and teacher candidate blogs.

So, here’s my iGoogle page:

iGoogle home page

As you can see, most of my iGoogle page is taken up with blogs that I want to follow. And, of course, I’ve got my hamster whom I’ve tentatively named Spartacus.

There are a ton more applications that can be added by clicking ‘Add Gadget’ on the top left. This centralization idea is fantastic because it saves you massive amounts of time. Instead of checking every single blog separately to see if they’ve posted something new, you can go to one place and have the new information come to you.

<Slightly tangential aside> As I was looking at iGoogle, I really wanted there to be a gadget that combines all of the blogs that fall into one category, so that there’s not an explosion of blogs all over your iGoogle home page. I couldn’t find a gadget like this available (if there is one, I would love to know). This led me to a free application called NetNewsWire (for Mac users) where you can group the blogs that you follow into categories. It generally just looks a little neater:

NetNewsWire

Anyway, I think I’m going to try both NetNewsWire and iGoogle and see which one I like better for following blogs. So far, the downfall with NetNewsWire: no hamsters. </Slightly tangential aside>

The next Google-related tool I wanted to use was the Custom Search. Let’s say you want to assign a research project to your class (example: a project on Spartacus), but you want to limit the number of sites that they can get their information from (example: you don’t want them accessing all the movie-related web pages). Well, you go to Google Custom Search and set up a new search engine!

Ideally, you would embed the search box into your class site or blog. Although not, apparently, if you are on WordPress (live and learn). Just for fun, here is a hypothetical search engine that I set up for a project on Spartacus.

One of the Google tools that I’m looking forward to playing more with is Google Docs. That one has some major implications in the classroom that I’m really interested to learn more about. It seems like there’s some serious room to get creative with Google Docs.

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The Joy of Discovery

In October 2008, I was fortunate enough to attend a conference at Cornell University put on by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. It was a really informative conference on a beautiful campus and I had a really great time.

My absolute favourite part, however, didn’t involve any of the talks during the day, or the poster session, either; my favourite part of the conference was the guy introducing the public lecture. The introducer’s name: Bill Nye.

Yes, that Bill Nye.

Bill Nye (the Science Guy) is obviously big into science education. So am I. The things he said during his 15 minute introduction stayed with me. He spoke about his involvement with the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. He was part of a committee that chose the following message to be written on these rovers, among all the scientific instrumentation:

“To those who visit here, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery.”

I got chills. I thought to myself, Yes! That’s what it’s all about: The joy of discovery. That’s what science education should be all about.

Bill wasn’t done:

“And I hope one of you one day will go up there and read it.”

More chills.

“When it comes to science, it’s got to be important to everyone” … “Science isn’t a thing. Science is something done by people. Science is an idea, a process that humans came up with to embrace and enjoy the joy of discovery.”

Critical chill capacity.

Don’t get me wrong, the speaker who followed Bill was fantastic; he was someone who very successfully brought astronomy and science to the public in an engaging way. But it was Bill that stayed with me. And now that I’m starting my journey to becoming a teacher, it’s something that I keep thinking about. “The Joy of Discovery”. In a nutshell, that’s what I want to bring to the table as a teacher.

So, thanks, Bill.

(Oh, and if you think that I left that lecture without snagging a picture with him, you clearly underestimate my love for the Science Guy.)

Bill Nye

By the way, the lecture (in its nearly-two-hour entirety) can be found here, posted by Cornell University. Bill’s part finishes up about 17 minutes into the video.