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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Games for Science Learning and Scientific Discovery

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist

Even though more people are recognizing the potential for teaching and learning through video games, there are still plenty of skeptics -- those who see video games as a mindless distraction, as entertainment and not education. But the work of a research center at the University of Washington may be at the forefront of challenging that notion. And this isn't just about how students can benefit from educational gaming either; it's about how scientific discovery can benefit from gamers.

That latter element has found UW's Center for Game Science in the news a lot lately, as one of the games it developed has helped lead to a breakthrough in AIDS research.

Creative Research Outsourcing

The game in question is called Fold.it, an online protein-folding game. Fold.it asks players to work with proteins' 3D structures (in other words, how the proteins "fold"). The game evaluates how good of a fold the player has made, gives them a score, and rates them on a leaderboard so that players from around the world can compete with one another.

Since the game's release, some 100,000 people have played Foldit, most of whom have little or no background in biochemistry. This hasn't stopped the players from developing folding models superior to other computer-based or lab-created models -- so much so that Fold.it players recently solved a scientific problem in three weeks' time that has stumped researchers for more than a decade. For some 14 years, scientists have been trying to figure out the structure of a particular protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, but failing to do so, turned the information over to the game's players, challenging them to see if they could produce an accurate model.

"We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed," Dr. Firas Khatib of the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry told Science Daily. And indeed, it did. In this case, by playing Fold.it, the gamers generated models that were good enough for the researchers to determine the enzyme's actual structure, something that in turn could help scientists develop drugs to target the enzyme.

A Peek Under the Hood

But Fold.it isn't the only project from the Center for Game Science. It's also working on another game called Refraction, this one aimed at "discovering optimal pathways for learning early mathematics." Refraction is a Flash-based puzzle game for learning about fractions, although players don't immediately get the sense that the game offers lessons in math. Nonetheless, the ability to understand and manipulate fractions -- to understand equal partitioning, addition, multiplication, improper fractions, and common denominators -- is necessary to help save the cute little animated animal that is stranded in space.

But what goes on "under the hood" of Refraction is also interesting. The researchers at the Center for Game Science are using the game to help identify "what works" in terms of students' game-play and in terms of their mathematical learning and comprehension. "The goal of this project," according to the center's website, "is to leverage this popularity to acquire huge amounts of learning data and discover the best ways to teach early mathematics. If players receive different versions of a game that have particular concepts changed or introduced differently, and the game records how players perform, researchers can use this data to understand how students learn. An additional goal is to make the game adapt to every player, so that it will never be too easy or too difficult and each student will always be working on the next concept he or she needs to learn."

In other words, this game isn't just about student learning; it's about researchers learning how students learn.

Both Fold.it and Refraction highlight how game-play is far from meaningless distraction. Both of them encourage players to play and learn, but they're also supplying researchers data to investigate the human capacity for problem solving and discovery.

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