Shape Games

Featured image creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by Jonas Tana

Shape is immensely important in science. The shape of a molecule, bone, or any other structure partially determines its function. When studying microstructures, it can be difficult for students to really grasp the complex three-dimensional structures that are proteins. I think a good analogy for this idea is the "human Tetris" phenomena. In simple terms, your function is to make it through the wall. Your shape determines how well you accomplish that task.

This is obviously an extreme example, but it's an easy visual cue for what's happening in our bodies all the time. In fact, you have proofreading enzymes that will break down a mis-formed protein so the constituent amino acids can be used in another functioning molecule.

Playing the Game

Proteins are complex, so we're going to take it down a notch and use a simple reverse-engineering game to help students see the relationship between structure and function. You can expand or limit this in countless ways and in many permutations, so don't worry too much about the particulars. One of my favorites is an old physical science task: keep an egg from breaking when dropped from a height.


The function in this case is very clear - don't let your egg break. Going about accomplishing that task really highlights the importance of a well-thought out and well-constructed container. The beauty of this game is that it is immediately accessible...there are no rules to learn and no complex interactions to stress over. Lowering the barrier for entry immediately invites students into the process of considering the structure as it carries out its function. Add in rapid prototyping and testing designs, and students are now involved in a learning loop driven by a simple goal and immediate feedback on the efficacy of their design. This is something "professional" players do regularly. Root-Berenstein (1999) quote Elmer Sperry on the prototyping idea, "I never would have realized the possibilities had I not been able thus to visualize [gyrocscopic reactions] while they were actually taking place."

The prototyping process is also important as students transform an abstract idea to a design to a working device and reinforces the idea that in play, "things are whatever we want them to be." Each transformation made, from a minor design improvement to a rework of their structure, is important in the learning process. Root-Berenstein also outline the transformational and play processes used by artists, and it reminded me of the mini-documentary below from the group Smiconductor as they played with and transformed data into an art installation.

Cosmos the Movie from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

I've also iterated on the implementation of this activity, from limiting their time to build to limiting what they can use to build. Both restrictions create a game environment and push students into higher levels of abstraction and synthesis. However, restrictions do not necessarily highlight the structure/function relationship more completely. By keeping the intrinsic load of the activity at a minimum, students can focus their energies on the structure-to-function relationship, which is the entire point of the task. Games, as with any instructional piece, can be cumbersome and unintentionally obscure the point of the work being done.

Finally, the diversity in student (or participant) solutions is amazing. Limiting materials tends to narrow the type of structure (for example, bags result in a lot of parachutes) and it's a great way to get into discussions about why certain structures emerge more frequently than others. Again, because of the low barrier for entry and open-ended nature in finding a working solution, students can jump in and begin finding relational points between a structure and it's function.

Interested in More?

Other building activities which could serve as structure/function comparisons include:


BBC. (2009, December 10). 2009 top fails - Hole in the wall - Series 2 episode 10 highlight - BBC one [Video file]. Retrieved from

Jarman, R., & Gerhardt, J. (2014). Cosmos [Video file]. Retrieved from

Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world's most creative people. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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