App review by Jenny Bristol, Common Sense Education | Updated February 2014


Challenging protein-folding puzzler helps science research

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11–12 This grade range is based on learning appropriateness and doesn't take into account privacy. It's determined by Common Sense Education, not the product's publisher.
Subjects & Skills
Science, Critical Thinking

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Pros: The chance to actually make scientific discoveries will likely grab students.

Cons: There's surprisingly little to learn about actual proteins or biochemistry through puzzle solving.

Bottom Line: The complexity will work wonderfully for more advanced students looking for challenge and the opportunity to help scientists, but it's a tough sell for whole-class learning.

Teachers can use this game as a research assignment or to challenge very advanced students as they progress through their independent studies. This is best used with students who show potential in the areas of biochemistry, engineering, planning, and/or logic. Students who do not have above-average spatial relations and multitasking skills will get stuck and frustrated often.

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Foldit is filled with protein-folding puzzles whose solutions have challenged scientists for decades. Powered by the creative minds of Foldit's players, the University of Washington is pushing scientific research into the properties of proteins. By solving an increasingly difficult set of puzzles that use actual scientific data, students explore the limits of protein expression and mutation, find new ways to fold proteins into new shapes, and contribute to scientific research that may lead to scientific breakthroughs in treating disease and other applications.

It's a puzzle game at its core with a rich scientific context that might not be readily understandable by most students. For students to contextualize what they're doing and understand how it helps science, they should approach the game with an existing understanding of proteins. There's a long but mostly unguided set of tutorials that are helpful, but will likely require students to search the community-created resources to understand why the changes they make are helpful or not. In this way, Foldit requires an inquisitive, self-motivated, and clever learner with some gaming and puzzle-solving experience. For that type of student, Foldit could be a wonderful experience that builds their problem-solving, critical-thinking, and communication skills. They'll also learn how to persevere and juggle multiple tasks.

Overall Rating

Engagement Would it motivate students and hold their interest? Is it visually appealing? Would it inspire teachers to try something new or change their instruction?

The crisp visuals demand attention, but the complex controls might be too challenging for some. Others, however, will enjoy extensive options for solving extraordinary puzzles.

Pedagogy Does the tool help teachers promote a more student-centered experience? Will students gain conceptual understanding or think critically? Does it deepen teachers’ pedagogical thinking?

Players essentially fold proteins in the name of science and research. But to dig into learning, players need to head to the active wiki and the global community, since Foldit downplays this information in the service of puzzle solving.

Support Can students and teachers get assistance when they need it? Is it created with people of different abilities and backgrounds in mind? Is learning reinforced and extended beyond the digital experience?

With little feedback, students must rely on the wiki and advice from other players to get the help they need. There are no tangible accessibility tools, and the steep challenge limits appeal to only more advanced players.

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