Common Sense Review
Updated August 2012

Lifeboat to Mars

Fantastic ecosystem sim makes learning biology fun
Common Sense Rating 5
Teacher Rating (1 Teacher Review) 4
  • Many of the games are hosted on external sites, such as this National Park Service site.
  • Shopping at the Micromart in Lifeboat to Mars
  • Aboard the Lifeboat to Mars
  • Managing plant and animal populations in Ecoland in Lifeboat to Mars
  • Guiding a microbe through Microworld in Lifeboat to Mars
Lifeboat to Mars takes kids on a guided tour of "the ecosystem" -- from its microbial producers to its animal consumers -- and lets kids create their own games.
Some levels are difficult, which might frustrate some kids.
Bottom Line
This excellent interactive tool introduces kids to "modding" as they read, play biology games, and even build and share their own games.
Chad Sansing
Common Sense Reviewer
Classroom teacher
Common Sense Rating 5
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 5

Lifeboat to Mars lets kids learn about biology in a fun, encouraging, and interactive environment. They can even design their own biology simulations to share with others.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 4

Lifeboat to Mars delivers hands-on biology content through game-based learning.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 5

Visual and audio cues often support text-based goals and instructions. Its levels start out easy and gradually ramp up. The game comes with plenty of supporting materials.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

Lifeboat to Mars would be an excellent supplement to a biology unit. Kids must apply what they learn in the required reading to highly interactive games. For example, they'll read that certain plants thrive closer to water, and in the Ecoland sim they might choose to place those plants … closer to water! It's an engaging and rewarding way to get the whole class involved and interested in one of the softer sciences.

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What's It Like?

Lifeboat to Mars is an ecosystem simulator hosted by PBS Kids Go! and developed by Red Hill Studios with the support of the National Science Foundation. An interplanetary ark transports microbes, plants, and animals from Earth to Mars to create an ecosystem capable of supporting terrestrial life. Kids are lifeboat trainees, and the Onboard Robot Trainee (ORT) teaches them to manage organisms.

The game is split into tutorials (Lifeboat Games) and missions (Lifeboat Missions), which are further split into Microworld and Ecoland levels. In Microworld, kids guide microbes through obstacle- and predator-laden mazes. They get tokens for completing mazes and use them to buy new parts, such as extra cilia or chloroplasts, for their microbes. In Ecoland, kids learn how to balance the needs of competing organisms to sustain populations of producers, consumers, and predators. Lifeboat games take place while they're docked at a space station; lifeboat missions take place en route to Mars to rebuild the population of organisms after an explosion happens on the ORT's watch.

Kids and teachers play for free. To save their progress, players must create and log into PBS Kids Go! accounts. These require a username, but not an email, and they provide suggested passwords that can be changed later. Load times at startup and during games can take a few moments.

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Is It Good For Learning?

Kids will definitely learn the basics of ecosystems. They must read the tutorials before going on missions, and as they play through missions (which include "starter" and "advanced" activities), there's a clear and compelling rewards system: They earn microbe, plant, and animal points. Microworld feels quick-paced and compelling, but sometimes its movement controls feel jerky. Ecoland captures the essence of ecosystem management. Kids and teachers can modify levels to present unique challenges in both Microworld and Ecoland.

Some levels can be quite challenging to win, so kids will have to experiment and try new strategies. Still, once kids complete all the required Lifeboat Mission starter and advanced activities, they can open the lifeboat's airlock and use their amassed points to build a sustainable ecosystem on Mars.

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