HudsonAlpha in running for award for educational game on assessing disease risk with genetics

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – HudsonAlpha houses a lot of groundbreaking genomic research, but they also do educational outreach.

Recently, they were named a finalist for an award for a video game they produced. It’s an educational game about maintaining the health of a crew while flying to Neptune’s largest moon.

“Touching Triton is an online serious game, that is focused on common complex disease risk,” says HudsonAlpha Digital Applications Lead Adam Lott.

It’s also a game about safely getting a crew of astronauts all the way out to Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, and back.

Touching Triton (HudsonAlpha)
Touching Triton (HudsonAlpha)

Here’s the thing about a 20-year journey.  Even when fictional, a lot can happen to astronauts.  Students have to manage risks for diseases that could set in along the way — everything from heart disease to colon cancer.

Hott elaborates, “They might be looking at the mechanical engineer, her medical record, her genomic data, and her family history data. They’re trying to determine in that set of data what is going to increase risk for these diseases? What is going to decrease risk for these diseases?”

Of course, you need more than one crew member to get to the edge of the solar system, and students need to build risk profiles for all of them.

“Once they have that, then they’re faced with all the options they have to pack,” said Hott. “There are about a hundred different packing options that they can make, but they don’t have room to pack everything. So they have to make strategic choices based on that risk for those diseases on what to pack and what to lead behind.”

Once they’ve got a full load out, students simulate the mission.

“The various outcomes are, who gets what disease? When they get a disease, is it treated? Does someone not make it?” Hott summarizes.

The risks students accept determine the results they get — the successes and failures of the mission. However, learning to assess the risks in the first place ensures the students succeed.

After all, Touching Triton proves that teaching with games has come a long way, even if there’s still stigma.

HudsonAlpha Educator Development Lead Madelene Loftin admits, “It feels a little awkward for teachers sometimes to say to their administrator, ‘Come see what my students are doing. They’re on the computer playing a game.'”

But computer games like this one can give teachers a lot of flexibility with their approach.

Loftin notes, “You could assign this as a homework assignment, where students worked on their devices outside of class, or you could do this in a 90-minute class period.”

But better yet, they provide a framework for students where success feels like it has more impact.  For example, assess this hypothetical genetic data, or your whole space crew could die on their way to Neptune.

“What the research tells us about the way students learn and how they take in new concepts and how they work through complex problems, is if you give them a situation where they get immersed in and they’re really investing themselves in thinking about it, they’re going to retain that content much, much better,” said Loftin.

Gaming can also play to imagination more directly. It can inform about possibilities for the future, instead of just recounting the past, like Touching Triton’s approach to genetics as a predictor of diseases like cancer.

“We’re rapidly moving into the time when doctors are going to use genetic information to begin to look at what’s a patient’s risk for developing diseases and how do i need to use that in making medical decisions,” Loftin points out.

Even if kids don’t use that knowledge to send us to Neptune’s moon, Loftin says, “Kids are making real gains in how they conceptualize risk, how they address the vocabulary related to common complex disease risk, and their interest in science has increased.”

That’s a pretty unique accomplishment for a 90-minute lesson.   Check out Touching Triton for yourself.