George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Games for Science Learning and Scientific Discovery

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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, an online protein-folding game. 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 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, 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 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 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.

Was this useful?

Comments (2) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

Games and education seem not to fit for those who are traditional educators. For some reason they don't think learning is fun. In a recent article, I shared how interactive demonstrations at museums captivate the interest of children. The interactive modules often integrated a short game. Here's the thing. Games don't write red marks all over the paper if you make a mistake. Instead, they are engaging in that you can continue to play to improve your scores.
Games let you explore different ways of working with data. I had a game, something about warlords, and I took the role of each of the groups to learn techniques that would let me play well. In some games, when you get a top score, you receive some type of special recognition.
Unfortunately most educators and administrators do not wade into games to understand the fascination, the intricacies and the methods that games use to entice, enchant and involve students, teachers and players.
I have worked with MECC, a group that started games in education. The great thing about it was that you had license to replicate the games in the school system. So, as fast as the ed tech people could copy, you could use the games. They were originally quite simple, but complicated enough to interest children.
Educational games left a breadcrumb trail so that the teacher and other users could see scores. Here's a funny thing. Sometimes, as a teacher, I had to stay after school to nuance a game. The children had more time to use the games than I did so they got better. But there was also this. There were children, that no one thought much about as students, who could ace the games and then show others how to do it, including the adults or teacher if they were interested.
We have expected scholars, but with certain games I began to learn that there were students who were quiet achievers who relished getting the best scores. I was also a teacher of gifted and talented students, but in classes with a mixed population of students, these unexpected student triumphs leveled the learning field.
Think of the games with a quest -- Amazon Trail, Oregon Trail, that kind of game. I would watch helplessly as some kids played the games to see how to manage the data, i.e., how far they could go in starving off the people on the trail and getting the results they wanted. So they read, wrote and learned; and interestingly enough, the Oregon Trail game was upgraded. It was on! I tried to think of ways to augment the shooting so I added recipes, quilting, learning about the plants and herbs that people took West as well as how they went to school and to the bathroom. We looked at covered wagons, trunks, cast iron pots and pans, and medicines. We were learning, learning, learning. One mother came in and showed us how to can, store and save foods.
Do you know Hot Dog Stand? This was a clever game about economics. It was about running a hotdog stand, under different circumstances, different kinds of events, variations in weather and so on. That game made us all think hard, and one of the things that that game did was to have us interview a vendor who worked and dealt with the kinds of differences that happened in the business. We ran a hot dog stand in the school for one day to experience the business. We did not have bad events, however, and we did have a lot of fun.
There was another game about Oceans. I think it was Odell Down Under. The Baltimore National Aquarium was a resource, and we learned about adaptations, estuaries, life cycles, and all the nuances of fresh vs. salt water. We never were able to afford a salt water aquarium. But I think the children worked a lot harder than peers who just reading a book or a paragraph about oceanography. We had fun learning because we visited SERC, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. We worked on a pier and did salinity studies, turbidity reports, weather studies, and we joyfully seined the little river, estimating populations.
I could share a lot of different games that made a difference. My steepest learning curve was DinoTycoon -- before games went big and wonderful. I was not that much in love with dinosaurs, but the book and the game and the movie were resources that worked for us as learners.
Later in life, I participated in a games and simulation project with several outstanding teachers at the San Diego Supercomputing Center. Sometimes I was a semicolon away from disaster. We learned to change the background in games, to do simulations, and to explore games and simulations that were academic. I remember gamers showing us how the sports games were created. They played around with the characters in the games and made them atypical. That was fun. George Lucas contributed to USC, and we were able to see games that students created as part of their studies. Cloud was my favorite.
The Armed Forces use simulations in interesting ways that work. Check out Defense Acquisition University.
A way to get students started in making games would be to learn how to use Agent Sheets. I learned to use it and can say that it's easy. AgentSheets is a revolutionary tool that lets users create their own agent-based games and simulations and publish them on the Web through a user-friendly drag-and-drop interface. AgentSheets users range from elementary school students to NASA scientists, entire school districts, and large federally funded university projects.
Computational Science: Interactive simulations help you grasp new ideas, test theories, explore complex processes in various science fields. Creating your own computational science applications deepens your understanding, but there is work to do to understand it.
Games: Building games (not just playing them) teaches you computer science concepts, logic, and algorithmic thinking. Our scalable game design approach is ideal for balancing motivational and educational concerns of computer education. That is a STEM thing!
Again, to integrate games into the classroom, administrators, teachers, and parents need to invest some time and experience. The problem is that many don't think learning can be fun. I loved this blog of Audrey's.

Stephen Lippa's picture
Stephen Lippa
Project Manager, ExploreLeanring

Great article Audrey! "Refraction" sounds very much like the path we are on with ExploreLearning Reflex ( Our focus is specifically on helping students developing math fact fluency. Reflex is adaptive precisely the way that is described so the individual learner is continuously challenged and engaged but progressively moving toward mastery of their math facts.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.