Mastering science through
games and everyday art

Published August 08 2016

Everyday objects and art, like this frieze on the Alhambra in Spain, can be used to teach symmetry.

In Chinese martial arts doctrine, there are three levels of supremacy. At the first level, the level of physicality, martial arts masters hold swords in their hands and exhibit command over their weapons through unassailable technique. At the second, conceptual level, the masters no longer carry the swords and have developed a keen sense of all weapons surrounding them. At the ultimate level, the understanding of how an object like a sword functions as a weapon is so deep in the masters’ hearts that nearly anything can take the place of a sword. A thin tree branch or a roll of ribbons can be transformed instantly into something dangerous.

A passionate scientist is not unlike a third-level martial arts master. With a heart full of love for science, she sees the world though a scientific lens that allows her to appreciate the inherent complexity in her world and apply abstract science concepts to an endless array of concrete materials. Just like the twig in the hands of a martial arts master, anything she sees or holds can become a medium for conveying the magic of science.

In the molecular biosciences department of the College of Natural Science at the University of Texas at Austin, we are passionate scientists hoping to instill passion and mastery in our students. One way we do this is by using unexpected mediums in the classroom.

Smartphone purification

Take a walk around any undergraduate campus these days, and you will note that most students are on their smartphones. Some are doing actual work, but a good number are playing games. Those games can be quite addictive.

Student addiction to smartphones can be a huge headache for teachers, but we have discovered an upside. When we designed an upper-level undergraduate biochemistry course meant to encourage problem solving, we needed to provide large numbers of students with hands-on experience. These students had to master protein purification, a core technique for biochemists. The only time most undergraduate students attempt protein purification is in a well-structured biochemistry lab class, during which they follow an established purification procedure like a cooking recipe. This teaching method doesn’t prepare students for real lab life, in which protein targets are often elusive despite adherence to procedural protocol.

To include interactive experimental design, iterative troubleshooting and problem solving in our teaching of protein purification, we asked our students to put their smartphones to use by playing a free video game during class called “Protein Purification.”

It turns out the game, created by Andrew Booth and be downloaded for free from the app store on smartphones, is an effective way to teach students the intricacies of various forms of chromatography. It allows them to simulate the purification of a protein from lysate to a single band on a gel in 10 minutes. Students can design the first purification step, and the experiment is run virtually with the results of this step shown in 1D or 2D electrophoresis gels, Western blots or chromatography spectra, which the students can then use as a basis for designing their next purification steps.

Student responses to the exercise have been overwhelmingly positive, and they’ve described the app as being “as addictive as a video game.” During the last semester, we held an optional grand challenge and asked students to completely purify one protein from a mixture of 60 proteins. One hundred of our 125 students participated in the challenge and proposed more than 10 different ways to purify the sample. The final winner of the challenge designed a strategy that was better than the one that we ourselves had designed. It had the fewest purification steps and maintained the highest yield and purity.

Exam scores related to protein purification questions have been consistently higher since we began using the game, and students report feeling confident about designing purification protocols for unknown proteins in future research.

Molecule “Survivor”

When teaching graduate students, we like to encourage individual thinking. Taking a cue from a 2009 Nature magazine poll, we recently asked each of the students in the class to make a case for the best, most desired molecule in the field. We then hosted a game of “Molecular Survivor”, adapting the voting format of the popular television show “Survivor” — including the torch and tribe gathering fanfare — to arrive at a winning potential molecule. Students in class were grouped and challenged to nominate a dream molecule whose structure and mechanism would change our world.

The students made passionate cases for their molecules, explaining why knowing each molecule’s structure would answer many important scientific questions and cure diseases. The tribe then spoke and narrowed the choices. In the end, their final choices closely matched those of the field at large as published in Nature. They were the eukaryotic ribosome, spliceosome, nuclear pore complex, HIV trimer and the epidermal growth factor receptor.

Not only did students deepen their knowledge of molecular function, but they also laughed and bickered while defending their choice of molecules — helping them to explore further the depths and nuances of learning and communicating science.

The art of symmetry

Scientists and science students are often joyfully curious. We like to encourage this happy curiosity in all of our students by urging them to look for scientific concepts playing out in daily life. These “I spy” games bring out the inner child in us all.

One example is our teaching of crystals and crystallography. Part of this teaching involves getting the students to understand the element of symmetry. On paper, symmetry is a mathematical operation where the result is identical to the starting state. An innately complex, visual problem, symmetry easily lends itself to real-life examples. Ballroom dancing can explain rotational and translational functions. The world around our students and under their feet contains numerous examples of symmetry. One way to grasp this is through the use of an online program called Eschersketch, which helps students visualize symmetry and feel like artists at the same time.

As an extra credit assignment, we provide a worksheet with examples of symmetry possible in two dimensions and challenge students to find the symmetry operators. The images aren’t scientific illustrations but samples of tile and wallpaper like those found in popular home stores like Home Depot. After this section, students end up finding the symmetry in the common objects everywhere around them, pointing out the symmetry used in buildings or even each other’s clothing.

When we introduce these real-world examples of symmetry, the conceptualization of crystal symmetry — the arrangement to biological molecules in protein crystals, which we cannot visualize even under the most powerful microscopes — doesn’t seem so intangible.

Smartphone apps, reality television shows and design art are just a few of the ways we’ve found to help students conceptualize complex issues and have fun while talking about abstract scientific topics. Turning science from something that students memorize into something that, like martial arts masters, they innately see and feel in their hearts is our ultimate goal. We hope that for our students, loving science will become a lifestyle that adds magic and joy to their lives.

Yan Jessie Zhang Yan Jessie Zhang is an associate professor in department of molecular biosciences at University of Texas, Austin.
Tyler StackTyler Stack is a biochemistry graduate student in the department of molecular biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin.