The recent success of such science-fiction films as James Cameron’s Avatar and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot has shown that space exploration continues to captivate kids, even though a majority of people ignored NASA launches when they were occurring.
NASA is working with a number of educational-based, big-time game developers on projects that will combine school subjects with the fictional excitement of sci-fi entertainment to teach kids everything from math and science on an elementary and high school level to engineering for graduate students. Through funding from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Education Coalition, schools have already deployed AstroEngineer: Moon Rover and Moonbase Alpha to help engage students in STEM subjects. And work is underway on the first NASA-licensed, massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond, which will allow teachers to create specific assignments that blend real-world science and math fused with fiction that will be set 30 years in the future. Students will be able to form teams and interact with one another online, both at school and at home in this endeavor.
“Video games have been finding their way into education for decades, but recently they have begun to show up in mainstream education reform efforts,” explains Daniel Laughlin, Ph.D., a project manager at NASA Learning Technologies. “I think we are on the verge of seeing games becoming a regularly accepted part of formal learning.”
While students have been using video games as entertainment since the early days of gaming, Laughlin says what is changing is the widespread acceptance of video games as legitimate learning tools for education, especially in the STEM fields. Just as the visuals on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games have become more cinematic and lifelike, those same technology innovations are allowing game developers to harness the 3D imagery, digital video and archival footage that NASA has been collecting for decades and utilize them within immersive, interactive worlds that will eventually replace the traditional textbook. At a recent National Education Policy Conference, more than half of the talks mentioned games as learning tools.
Adrienne Evans Fernandez, who spearheaded in-classroom research for the National Science Foundation and is now on staff at game studio WisdomTools as the STEM Content and Curriculum Designer, best summarizes the attraction of NASA for kids. “Kids like space,” Fernandez says. “The space angle helps games like AstroEngineer and the NASA MMO immensely. They could very easily be testing rovers in the Atacama Desert, but that’s not nearly as fun as driving around the moon.”
With video games now entrenched as mainstream entertainment, Sonny E. H. Kirkley, Ph.D., founder of WisdomTools, says NASA is targeting the 12- to 24-year-old demographic as the “sweet spot” for the next round of its game projects. As classrooms become more connected and textbooks go digital, video games are opening up new ways to keep the attention of today’s distracted students. And they’re offering NASA a new way to be relevant to the public by offering a firsthand experience on what the future of space holds – without having to wait for 30 years.
“That’s a long way from where we were just five years ago,” Laughlin says. “The debate about whether games can improve education is mostly over.”
“Serious games bring the powerful tools available in the game development community to bear on the challenges of learning, training and problem solving,” explains Jerry Heneghan, founder and CEO of Virtual Heroes, which has worked with the U.S. Department of Defense on the America’s Army online game as well as on the Moonbase Alpha game. “NASA clearly believes in the power of simulations as training tools. When we asked for input on how NASA could use an MMO to enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, the overwhelming message we got back was that NASA had to be committed to the MMO being fun.”
Since launching the free Moonbase Alpha (virtualheroes.com/moonwalk) game last year — the game runs on the same Unreal Engine 3 technology that helped Microsoft sell 16 million copies of Gears of War games — NASA has been inundated by educator requests. There is a team of young NASA professionals working with local educators at NASA Langley on curricular materials to go with the title. Laughlin says NASA will have content ready for educators soon. The game offers single- and team-based objectives for groups of two or four players to partake in challenges on a NASA lunar establishment on the moon. All of the vehicles and buildings are based on real NASA technology and architecture.
While Laughlin’s team is still collecting data from Moonbase Alpha, there has been positive feedback from the students who have played the game. One student said, “My teacher tried to explain the engineering design process to us last year and it didn’t make any sense to me. Once I was in the game, it was easy to understand.” Another said, “You understand what it is like to be on the moon with low gravity. The way you move and walk is easy to get when you experience it like this.”
NASA is now working with the same game developers and educators to develop a full-fledged MMO game experience to promote science and math through realistic, fun and engaging gameplay set 30 to 50 years in the future.
“Space exploration is the perfect virtual environment to teach kids problem-based learning, which is an approach that takes something holistic, meaningful, authentic, and out of that students learn the content, the pieces that they need to learn,” Heneghan explains. “With Moonbase Alpha and the NASA MMO, we’re using a variation of this called ‘mission-based learning,’ which allows groups of students to work together as team members with different skills to achieve authentic mission goals within the game environment. We give them the tools and support they need to accomplish these goals and learn along the way.”
Kirkley, a member of the team put together by the Center for Space Science Education to oversee the NASA MMO game, says the designers are blending science fiction with NASA technology for future spacecraft, vehicles and space suits. The MMO game will utilize specialties such as engineer, scientist, pilot, educator and merchant, allowing players to work together utilizing abilities such as building robots or administering medicine to solve problems that occur during missions.
“This game is going to inspire young people, their parents and their teachers because it will deliver some of the excitement of space exploration,” Kirkley says. “We’re designing this game to work beyond the classroom.”