Common Sense Review
Updated March 2015

Planet Mechanic

Mini-solar system sandbox lets kids play with planets
Common Sense Rating 4
Teacher Rating
Not Yet Rated
Pros
Slick model of planet and star allows quick visual communication of some tricky science.
Cons
The gameplay grows dull even before the 20-minute session concludes.
Bottom Line
Provides students with an interactive conceptual primer on some key planetary science concepts.
David Thomas
Common Sense Reviewer
Director of academic technology
Common Sense Rating 4
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 4

It's amusing to twiddle knobs and change a planet's properties.

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

The tunable model illustrates a few key variables and concepts underlying the differing properties of planets.

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

Tutorials walk players through the basics, and some in-game help text defines terms and allows players to monitor how changes they make affect planet properties like temperature.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

Life on Earth results from a delicate balance of galactic factors. Planet Mechanic helps illustrate the relationships between things like planetary orbit, temperature, water, ice, atmosphere, and planetary tilt. Watching a marble-sized planet whirl around a pulsing sun helps illustrate the dynamic nature of a planetary system, and the ability of the player to change many key variables in this simulation helps cement the relationships between orbits, planet temperature, and length of a day or a year. Lots of in-game coaching and detail make this a perfect homework assignment to brush up on or lead into lecture or discussion on the game's central topics. And its short length -- perhaps 20 minutes to play through all the levels -- make it a viable option for a computer lab where students first play Planet Mechanic then dive into more in-depth research on the Web for a report, essay, or presentation. For instance, students could write a report explaining -- or craft a presentation illustrating -- what it is about Earth that makes it hospitable to life. They could also speculate about how changes to Earth's delicate balance of variables would impact life.

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What's It Like?

Planet Mechanic turns part of a solar system into a sandbox. Students play with scientific laws as they try to craft the perfect homeworld for a demanding alien taskmaster. Tweaking a series of planetary options -- presence of a moon, the distance in orbit from the sun, the tilt of the planet's axis, and the thickness of the atmosphere -- players create the perfect home for a fickle extraterrestrial who one minute wants shorter days, and the next, warmer nights. As students fiddle with the settings, they learn about the cause-and-effect relationships between major planetary variables and their environmental effects. Planet too hot? Move it away from the sun. Want ocean tides? Add a moon! By encouraging lighthearted trial-and-error experimentation, Planet Mechanic acts as a simple, playful interactive introduction to some universal concepts. To ensure students master the ideas, and not just the interface, simple quiz questions after each activity test for concept comprehension.

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Is It Good For Learning?

Flipping switches and seeing immediate results offers a compelling initial learning experience that focuses on scientific modeling and experimentation. It's an accessible seed of some very complex scientific learning content -- gravity, the movement of celestial bodies, atmosphere -- and teaches some of this content conceptually by just giving students a working model and letting them see how it all works. Unfortunately, over the 15-20 minutes it takes to complete a scenario, it loses some of this feeling of experimentation and discovery, and settles into familiarity. So, for instance, when the googly-eyed alien Senator Flaax requests that the length of his planet's day equal 10 Earth days, the only and obvious solution is to slow the rotation of his planet to a crawl until the meter ticks to 10 Earth days. Interesting at first, but not particularly fun successively. If looked at as a 15-20 minute experience, however, it introduces some key content well.

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See how teachers are using Planet Mechanic