Foldit

Challenging protein-folding puzzler helps science research

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Expert evaluation by Common Sense

Grades

11–12

Subjects & Skills

Critical Thinking, Science

Price: Free
Platforms: Web, Linux, Mac, Windows

Pros: Chance to make scientific discoveries. Education mode has a nice set of activities.

Cons: Curriculum-connected learning about actual proteins or biochemistry remains a little limited.

Bottom Line: While this still remains best for advanced students looking for a challenge, the education mode helps everyone give it a shot.

Foldit is best used with students who show potential in the areas of biochemistry, engineering, planning, and/or logic. Students who don't have above-average spatial relations, multitasking skills, and solid motor skills will likely get stuck and frustrated.

For those students, teachers can use Foldit as an independent study or extension project. This is probably best done at the beginning via the Education mode. Upon signing in to the app, you'll be asked if you want to load up this mode. It does a good job of scaffolding the puzzle-solving and also has nice facts layered throughout. Extra guidance for it isn't easy to find, though, so you'll want to use a search engine to find the FAQ. After going through this sequence of puzzles, you might encourage students to participate in the time-limited puzzles for the entire Foldit community found on the main site. It's also possible to create custom puzzles and contests tailored to your class, but this requires a lot of expertise with the tool.

Foldit is half puzzle game, half research tool. It's free and filled with protein-folding puzzles whose solutions have challenged scientists for decades. Players solve an increasingly difficult set of puzzles involving protein molecules, based on actual scientific data. Along the way, 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.

Audio cues and a posted score accompany each puzzle to help guide solvers. Pop-up hints and a help button with direct links to the glossary, the site's wiki, and the user forum offer additional support but require persistence in order to access useful help.

The recent addition of Foldit Education mode includes a list of best practices, directions for getting started, and a sequence of puzzle activities that onboard students to the tool and teach them about proteins.

Foldit is a puzzler at its core. The rich scientific context isn't necessary to succeed in the game, and might not be readily understandable by most students. But it's there, and especially in the Education mode, which has lots of tool tips with facts and info.

For students to better understand what they're doing and how it helps science, they should approach the game with an existing understanding of proteins. For this reason, Foldit is probably best paired with some deep prior learning and then used as an extension. The Education mode makes this more palatable for whole-class learning, but even so it might not grab every student. This is a definitively nerdy pursuit that some students will geek out over and others just won't take to. It's also pretty easy for students to bypass the learning potential completely and just power their way through the games.

Foldit, while neat and novel, requires certain kinds of curious and clever learners to really take off. For those students, Foldit could be a wonderful experience that builds thinking skills alongside practical biochemistry learning.

Learning Rating

Overall Rating
Engagement

The visuals are crisp but still feel like a different era. Controls could be too challenging for some. Education puzzles scaffold learning and have interesting facts.

Pedagogy

It's neat to fold proteins and contribute to research. For deeper learning, students will need context and patience to read pop-ups, take notes, and follow up. Otherwise, it's simply trial-and-error puzzle-solving.

Support

The education mode builds skills well. Audio cues and points provide some feedback. It has limited accessibility options but does have a variety of languages. For the persistent, there's a good wiki and community.

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