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Kerbal Space Program
Pros: Playing and participating with a rich online community helps students learn content and skills.
Cons: Students who need structure and preset goals may have problems staying engaged.
Bottom Line: This accurate rocket sim encourages trial-and-error learning and makes for great (and often explosive) physics and engineering experiments.
The free demo should provide enough material for basic classroom use, but students who get hooked will want the full version. Given Kerbal Space Program's accurate modeling of rocket construction and the underlying calculus, Newtonian physics, and trial-and-error processes that ground rocket science, it could easily integrate into math, physics, or engineering classrooms. For instance, teachers could supplement a physics lesson on forces and angular momentum with homework in Kerbal Space Program, asking students to achieve orbit and record the stats of their rockets for comparison.
Teachers should be aware, however, that it's a tough and demanding game. Easily frustrated students will benefit from additional help and could be directed to the thriving online community supporting the game. There are tons of tutorial videos and forum posts that will help students through just about any challenge.
Kerbal Space Program is somewhat like a NASA simulator except it's set in a fictional star system on the planet Kerbin. Players purchase various rocket parts, put them together, and then see if they can get their ship into orbit, to one of Kerbin’s two moons, or even to another planet. The star system closely resembles our own, but the planet is populated with cute green characters reminiscent of the minions in the movie Despicable Me.
The game has three modes: Career, Science, and Sandbox. In Career mode, players manage and expand their own space center, researching new technologies and going on missions. The Sandbox mode is open-ended; students can learn to fly without restrictions. Science mode lies somewhere between the other two modes in terms of freedom. Some other activities include managing a budget, going on expeditions outside the ship, docking spacecrafts, and discovering new worlds. What emerges from all these features is a series of unique, self-designed experiences that highlight the trials and tribulations of space flight.
In Kerbal Space Program, students set goals, build rockets, evaluate mission results, change designs, and try again. It offers a solid simulation of astrodynamics and physics, and students who take the time to observe flight readouts and toy with the ship’s trajectory will learn fundamentals of rocket science and realistic, modern-day space flight.
Since it's tough, students will also need to help each other or watch player-created video tutorials and read forums for tips. In short order, students will be able to say, “Well, actually, it is rocket science,” just before explaining that it's most efficient to adjust a ship’s trajectory at the apoapsis or periapsis of its elliptical orbit. Students learn that small differences like this mean greater fuel efficiency and the difference between reaching mission goals or crashing and burning.