Review by Galen McQuillen, Common Sense Education | Updated September 2016
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SimplePlanes

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Minimalist flight simulator lets you build (and crash) your own plane

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4-12 This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
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Pros: The fundamentals of flight are made simple and accessible with a robust airplane creator and bare-bones controls.

Cons: Despite the simplified controls, skilled flight takes lots of practice, and tablet controls aren't the best; the experience is better on a computer.

Bottom Line: Tweaking custom-built airplanes to make them fly better (or just avoid crashing) is a great way to discover some principals of physics.

You'll need to pair SimplePlanes with solid lessons that dive into the mathematics and dynamic systems at play here. When discussing centers of mass and motion -- and lift, drag, and three-dimensional force generally -- you can include this app for some hands-on practice, especially if live demonstrations aren't practical for some reason. The specifics of aerodynamics might be a stretch for most high school physics classes, but a flight simulator and the prospect of video gaming in class might be enough to hook some kids into getting interested in force vectors, at the very least. 

For engineering-flavored physics projects or engineering elective classes, SimplePlanes is a great way to experiment with prototyping and design principles without the mess and material overhead. Use this before assigning your "build a frisbee-throwing robot" final project as an introduction to the kinds of thinking, iterative processes, trial-and-error, prediction, and collaboration that such work requires. You might need to have discussions with students about the appropriate use of weapons in any work they do, though. 

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SimplePlanes is a super-simplified flight simulator coupled with a very complex and nuanced aircraft-creation system. Players can start off learning to fly a prebuilt plane using basic model airplane-style dual joystick controls, optionally taking time to read the game's tutorials on controls and fundamental physics. Once they've mastered successfully taking off, steering through aerial obstacle courses, and landing, they can swap out everything from wing styles and nose cones to engines and more or even start completely from scratch. Planes can also be equipped with a variety of weapons, which can be used in a series of combat missions.

Tablet controls use transparent joystick overlays on the screen, while the computer version uses a peripheral gamepad or joystick setup (we tested with an Xbox One controller on a PC, and controls were smooth and responsive). The controls are all completely customizable, so they can be as simple or complicated as you like.

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There are a number of (mostly aerodynamic) physics concepts that SimplePlanes makes very tangible, including lift, drag, center of mass, yaw, pitch, and roll. The app does a good job of explaining controls and plane-construction details and even has a nice guided live tutorial on takeoff and landing, but the rest is entirely up to the player to figure out. This makes it great for sandbox-style discovery learning.

To make it a stronger educational tool, some physics feedback would be great: The app does all the math on the fly, and if the numbers were shown on-screen, kids could easily connect the physics and real-world events. Also, many of these concepts are made even more tangible and real to kids with live demonstrations they can actually get their hands on. If you're looking to meaningfully bring video games into the classroom, though, SimplePlanes is a great option.

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Overall Rating
3

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?
4

Flight simulators are a lot of fun in general, and this one lets players jump right into flying and customizing their planes, with simple-but-great graphics and challenging-but-responsive controls. There are tons of planes to download, too.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?
3

There's not much physics talk here, but gameplay is highly hands-on. With a good curriculum and the math to back it up, this tool could fit nicely in physics or physical science classes.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?
3

Well-written, straightforward, plain-spoken language guides help with everything from building to controls to the basic science of flight, but the tool could use more interactive tutorials. There's a big online community, though.


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