The story of how I taught kids about Space Travel using a video game

Last week I completed my final exam in Education, and the really cool thing is that three of the major pieces of work I needed to turn in all had to do with video games. My thesis was about teaching Information Society using Civilization IV, my vocational practice was completed at a gaming research group, and my compulsory volunteer work was a neat little project of my own.

I have stated this in several videos I made in the past: If Kerbal Space Program had existed back when I was in high-school I would likely be pursuing a career in aerospace engineering by now. I didn’t discover how much I loved the subject until I was well into my training in Education. When I was informed about the volunteer work required to complete my semester I got to thinking. How many kids could there be out there like me, who might love space travel, but will likely never get exposed to the subject? The thought lead to an idea, and with a wave of determination that is remarkably uncharacteristic of me I set about making it a reality. I wanted to help a group of students make their own virtual Space Program.

kerbal-space-program-enhanced

For those of you who are not familiar with Kerbal Space Program allow me to give you a short introduction. Kerbal Space Program is a spacecraft construction and space flight simulation video game with minor business management elements. Basically you build spaceships, launch them into orbit, and fly them in space in a small scale but physically accurate solar system. The game can be challenging to learn only from the tools provided by the developers, however a niche culture has developed around the game, where you can easily find folks on the internet who make guides and videos aimed at helping others learn how to play. I myself have made a good few videos about it as well.

The concept

The concept I came up with was the following: I would organize a group of 8th grade students into a small simulated space program, with the ultimate goal of landing on the Moon before the school year comes to an end.

Prior to the use of the Kerbal Space Program software I planned to hold several lecture style presentations on the history of space travel, the physics and mechanics involved, the organizational workings of space programs, and the basic use of the game itself. Once the students have a good grasp on the basics, we would form three work groups with different roles: Scientists, Engineers and Astronauts (or rather pilots).

kerbal_space_program_-_wernher_von_kerman.jpg

The Scientists would be responsible for coming up with mission plans for the individual missions leading up to the Moon-landing. They would be responsible for deciding where their resources get allocated to, what types of vessels need to be built, what construction plans get approved, and any other administrative decisions. The scientist group could also have some kind of director, who acts as the head of the program in general.

kerbal_engineers

The Engineers build the actual spacecraft themselves. They would receive the mission parameters from the scientists and construct a vessel to meet the requirements within the budget provided.

kerbalnauts

Finally, the Astronauts pilot the assembled spacecraft on the actual missions, and provide feedback to the engineers regarding possible modifications.

Generally a regular loop would look like this: The Scientists would decide what the next step in the program should be (most likely based on a long-term plan). They would specify the parameters of the mission, such as achieving an orbit, a fly-by, a rendezvous and/or docking, and so on. The Engineers would build a craft capable of completing the mission, and start “simulating” the flights. Using the game, the Pilots would perform several simulated missions to see if the craft performs according to specifications. If it does, then the Engineers can submit the craft for manufacture, and the real missions can begin. This is then repeated until the final objective (the Moon-landing) is accomplished.

kerbal_hq

I had several “rules” planned to enhance the experience. Every action would have a “cost”, and the program would have to operate within a specific budget, with possible options later on for acquiring additional funds. A “simulation” can be used to train the Pilots and test out spacecraft. Simulations would cost much less than building and launching a rocket, and could use all of the games quality of life features (quicksaves and quickloads, flight reverting, placing objects into pre-calculated orbits, etc.). They would, however, not count towards completion of a goal. For that they would have to fly non-simulated mission. These would use up one of the manufactured rockets, and would have to by flown from start to finish without “cheating” (I’m considering adding some sort of leniency rule for the future).

For the most part students would have full control over how they use their time. After the main goal has been given, the path they take to accomplish it is up to them. If at any point they would require assistance they could turn to me for help. However, in sort of a Dewey approach, I would let the students work on their own, let them figure out the mechanics and tricks by working together. At most I was going to hold a few presentations on common topics involving space travel, and anything that they themselves express interest in knowing more about.

What I ended up with

Even when I first thought this whole thing up I was convinced that there was no making this a reality. The fact of the matter was that it was the spring semester, half way through the school year. The assignment was handed out to me in March, and by the time I managed to get into contact with the facilitating school and got the course off the ground (see what I did there?) it was already well into the middle of April. The school was very enthusiastic about my idea, but warned me that by now most students’ extracurricular time-tables were already full. With not enough time to start the course in full, they offered me an alternative solution.

launch

This school had something we in Hungary call a Technika-class. Not sure how you would translate this into English, but the point of this, is to teach the students mechanical skills that could come in handy in every day life. Sadly, in this school the class was still broken up into boys and girls (boys learn to use tools and machines, girls learn to sew and cook. Its horrible, I know…), which meant that I would be able to teach only the boys of the 8th grade classes. I hated having to make that compromise, but at least I only had to deal with half a class, instead of a full one.

As the year was coming to an end fast, this also meant that I would only have 4 classes with 2 groups of 8th grade boys (8 classes total, 1 and a half hours each). This meant that I had to radically condense my plan into a four-class set of sessions. I tried to strike a balance between lectures and activities, and came up with a simple four-step path to the Moon.

  1. Achieving Orbit around the Earth
  2. Flying behind the Moon (and potentially achieving Orbit around it as well)
  3. Achieving Rendezvous and Docking of two spacecraft in orbit of Earth
  4. Landing a craft on the Moon, and bringing the crew back to Earth

Each session would consist of me giving a short lecture about the day’s goal, and the students attempt to accomplish it. The sessions were far more directed than the original plan due to the lack of time. I did have to step in and provide direction more often and keep the students on track. The scientist role was trashed, leaving just a group of students to build the ships, and a second group to fly them. In the end though, crammed as the sessions were, we managed to achieve my adjusted goals within the time available.

Experiences

I was happy to see a high level of engagement from most of the students who attended. Once visually showcased, and given the opportunity to mess around with them in-game, the kids quickly grasped the basics of orbital mechanics, and understood how objects in space move and maneuver. During the lectures they had lots of questions and observations, many demonstrating impressive awareness of current developments in the field of space flight.

The individual mission goals were almost all accomplished (one group was unable to fully complete the docking procedure before we ran out of time). Each group had there own unique design of spacecraft (one of the groups insisted on having ships with LOTS of antennas), and both groups managed to land their ships on the Moon (again, due to time constraints, I did have to dock the Lunar Modules and fly the ships back home myself). Here are some images of the spacecraft built by the students:

Group one

 

Group two

 

When the class was finished the students had nothing but positive things to say. They were bombarding me with questions about the old space programs, the future Mars plans and many other things, far too many to get through in the little time we had left. Several students even came up to me in the breaks to tell me they had gotten their hands on the game themselves, and asked me to give them pointers on subjects like atmospheric landings and inter-planetary travel. I had conversations with many of them in the minutes leading up to the sessions about space stuff. Best of all, I found out from outside sources that many of the girls had gotten wind of what was going on in those classes, and apparently asked their teachers to let them take part in what they were calling “astrology class”. (Their teachers denied them, sadly, but it did make me happy to be reassured that girls are just as interested in all this engineering stuff as boys are. I would have been overjoyed to have them.) Both teachers who were present during my presentations had the same reaction: they thought that it was great to expose these students to the subject, which they likely never would have been otherwise. They themselves also were fascinated by the material, and were happy to learn so many interesting things as well.

Thoughts and Conclusions

While I was there I was also trying to identify possible areas for improvement in my concept. While I was thrilled that the idea even in its condensed state warranted the level of engagement it got, there are many things that I need to think about if I want to move ahead with my idea in the future. One of the two teachers gave me a piece of feedback that was really helpful, and was also something I was pondering during the planning phase earlier. For this class I used my own personal laptop, so that meant that at one time only one instance of the game could be running. In an actual session that would mean only one group can do their task at a time, while the others would have to wait for their turn at the computer. I would have to find tasks to occupy the various groups during this downtime, or alternatively I would have to acquire more computers so the groups can work simultaneously (Astronauts can train in orbital maneuvers while Engineers build the next craft, etc.).

I initially thought that the Astronaut role would be the most popular. Surely the most fun comes from being able to fly the ships, right? Turns out that almost everyone wanted to be an Engineer, to build cool spaceships without having the responsibility of guiding it safely along its path. While it would likely be optimal if all students stuck to their initial roles, I should consider options for rotation. I imagine many students would feel let down if they joined the course to be able to fly a spaceship, and ended up stuck in an administrative position for the whole program (though that would likely be very true to life). I have to, at the very least, provide opportunities for everyone to try out the various roles, maybe even before they pick permanently.

Also since I didn’t get to try out this course in its original form I am sure other difficulties will present themselves, and I will have to deal them as they come. It has been said before: Plans are useless, but planning is essential.

kerbal_fistbump

All in all, I can safely say that this Space Class has been by far the best experience of my three years in Education training. Throughout the teaching of the classes themselves, as well as the organization and communication involved, I have grown as a person and a professional unlike in any other activity I took part in. If my future studies afford me the time I would gladly spend more of my afternoons helping get more young people interested in space, to provide them the boost that I wish I could have gotten at that age. I eagerly await future opportunities to send more 8th graders to the Moon and back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s