Change Your School’s Culture and Save the World Part 2

Previously in the post “Change Your School’s Culture and Save the World,” I set up the following scenario:

Imagine that you’ve been given two tasks as a principal: change the culture at your school and save the world.
There’s a simple solution out there. It’s a solution that would not just change the culture of your school, but it would also . . . literally . . . help save the world.
It can be done in a hurry and with little or no money.
Next time we’ll save the world. We’ll start with cancer. You’ll need a PS3. Serious.

In my last blog, we built the game room at your school. Not just a game room, but a gamers’ room, replete with treadmills and recumbent bikes to maintain superior gamer fitness.
Now we’re going to help save the world, and it’s going to happen right in that new gamers’ room. We need to start with some Biology 101 first. Are you familiar with proteins and what they do?
Proteins are the basic building blocks of life.  And when proteins do their protein thing, they fold.   They literally fold into a new shape.   But occasionally something goes wrong, and a protein fails to fold or it “misfolds.” This failure to fold can lead to everything from Alzheimer’s to many forms of cancer.
When proteins fold correctly, protein scientists have discovered that they fold in predictable ways. Researches are trying to map out all the possible folds that a protein can fold. And this is where the rub is. There are so many potential folds, that the world’s best super computers would need almost 30 years to map out the sequence.
Computer nerds, though, had a solution. They suggested running the protein mapping program on numerous computers and network them together. They even networked home PCs together to create a giant super computer. This allowed researchers to make great advancements, but they still wanted a network of better computers.
University of Stanford researchers had an idea. What’s the most powerful computer that’s in literally millions of homes? The answer: game systems. Game systems are equipped with powerful microprocessors that flawlessly render dynamic 3D graphics, and almost all systems are wired on the net now, just like the systems in your gamers’ room.
Problem: The researchers couldn’t make a computer program for a gaming system. They had to rely on a game developer to do it, and then they would need gamers to actually play it.
Problem Solved:  Sony agreed to build it, and gamers bought into the idea of playing it with enthusiasm that only gamers can have.
What do Sony and the gamers get out of this? For Sony, it is pure philanthropy. For the gamers, it is a great challenge, and it turns out that gamers have an evolved, or maybe advanced, social conscience. They are, after all, battling evil three to five hours a night. Why not battle cancer, too?
How does it work? Folding@Home is a simple download on Sony’s PS3, and it runs in the background as gamers use their systems. And, if you’ve not seen a game system lately, you can do a lot more than game. You can watch Hulu, Netflix, rent movies, download music, check Facebook, and Twitter . . . all while folding proteins in the background. Gamers can also watch the folding simulations live and check their own data on how much they have processed.
Check out this video on Folding@Home:

Has it really caught on, though? Absolutely! Gamers have formed competitive folding teams to see who can fold the most at home. Gamer blogs are dedicated to promoting the project. Gamers advance the cause with spirited rallying cries:

Help save real lives when you’re not saving virtual lives. Have your cured cancer lately? Your PS3 can’t do it without you!

What are the results? Stunning! Check for yourself at Stanford’s results page or awards page. University of Washington researchers have tapped even deeper into gamer expertise with their computer program.
PC Magazine Leslie Horn writes:

Developed by researchers at the University of Washington, Foldit turns scientific problems into competitive games. Players were charged with using spatial and critical thinking skills to build 3D models of protease. Few of these players had any kind of background in biochemistry.

The program uses much more than just the power of computers. uses the power of the gamer’s brain. Intuition and 3D spatial skills are essential here, and gamers have been perfecting that for . . . thirty years.
Over 236,000 gamers (also called Citizen Scientists) downloaded the program. Researchers tasked them with mapping a protease (an enzyme that cuts a protein) that is found in the AIDS virus.
Results:  Gamers cracked the protein code in three weeks. Scientists had worked on the same code for over twelve years.
That needs some emphasis. Three weeks completed (gamers) vs. twelve years ongoing (scientists).
That’s a seriously great use of crowd sourcing. And you have that crowd in your gamers’ room. That’s right, go cure cancer.
Update: New PS3s now come pre-loaded with Folding@Home.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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