Thought Piece: Simulations and Education

By: Hillary McDaniels


The last time I studied biology, I was a freshman at Farragut High School, almost 10 years ago. The online simulation game, Foldit, allows people with little science background to execute complex biological experiments.

When I heard that I had the capacity to solve some of the most complex protein folding problems, I was shocked and intrigued.

First, I remembered nothing about biology, just like all of the other pseudo-scientists playing Foldit. Second, science is a complex field of study requiring years of additional schooling and practicums. I have none of the experience that should be required to work with complex proteins. I am just an average person – a person with very little experience with science, but because of the simulation Foldit, I have the capacity to complete scientific projects.

The use of simulations in education is finally becoming more popular. For years, simulation games have been used by the United States Armed Forces to train pilots for flight and to test vehicles in motion. Foldit is one of the first science simulations to be available to non-scientists. The simulation allows for any person of average scientific capabilities to test different protein folding options.

What is Foldit? Foldit is one of the most widely acclaimed gaming experiments. It was developed at the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science. Foldit challenges players to learn about the shapes of proteins. Players compete online to fold them into  more efficient shapes. The website boasts that Foldit is “an online game in which humans try to solve one of the hardest computational problems in biology: protein folding.”

Why is this online experiment becoming such a huge step forward in the world of science? Foldit takes advantage of humans’ innate puzzle-solving skills. The game process has exceeded the researchers’ expectations. The solutions could help scientists develop cures for Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, and cancer.

“It has basically shown that it is possible to create experts in a particular domain purely through game play,” says Zoran Popvich, one of Foldit’s creators.

The program excels because computers are poor at predicting how irregular shapes might look in a future state. The game allows the players to manipulate proteins in ways that a computer could not calculate.

One of the game’s most recent challenges had players analyzing an HIV protein from a monkey. The structure had previously eluded scientists for 15 years. Foldit players figured it out in 10 days thanks to the manipulation allowed within the game.

In an online simulation thick with camaraderie and competition, the heart of the game is that Foldit’s players who are mostly “not biologists” are discovering potentially life-changing science.

A newly published paper discusses how the focus has moved from what the gamers discovered to examining the methods the gamers used.

“With our previous papers, we proved that a scientific-discovery game can solve long-standing scientific problems, but this paper shows how gamers codified their strategies, shared them and improved them,” Cooper said. “This is just the beginning of what Foldit players are capable of solving.”

The University of Washington says this is the first time they are aware that researchers have tapped into the expertise of games to solve long-standing problems.

Cooper says the results of this study show how powerful treating scientific research like a computer game can be. Does it end there? Can this same theory be added to any education game? Only time will tell, but Foldit has clearly shown that education and expansion can come from anyone, anywhere.

Microsoft, Adobe, and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are among the groups sponsoring the university’s development of the game.

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