Kerbal Space Program… in Education

Over the last few years, I have read numerous stories of using games in the classroom. Having a game that teaches students while they play has a lot of advantages over traditional instruction… the biggest advantage is simply in student interest. Let’s face it, children (as well as adults) love to play games. One might say that playing games is wired into our genes. By encouraging students to play games in which they learn information, we are taking advantage of this seeming innate interest in order to teach. It’s a win for the teachers and a win for the students.

The Kerbal Space Program logo

SOURCE: Kerbal Space Program

I have seen a lot of usage of Minecraft in educational environments, but I wanted to go in a different direction. I am a chemical physicist by training and have taught both chemistry and physics throughout my career. Building things in Minecraft is great… but nothing is cooler than space travel! So many scientists got interested in science through the space program! Enter Kerbal Space Program. Kerbal Space Program (KSP) allows the players to run a space program. Using “simple” rocket parts, the player builds rockets and then launch them. Sometimes the rockets work great and then sometimes…

A rocket in Kerbal Space Program exploding.

SOURCE: Eric Kelly

KSP also allows for users to create mods, just like Minecraft. These mods allow the program to do more than the vanilla, off-the-shelf version. By itself, KSP offers the users great physics details like trust, force, torque, strength, weight, etc. However, in its ordinary version, KSP is not multiplayer capable. That means in classroom setting, multiple students would have to work at a single computer to collaborate. The Dark MultiPlayer mod adds multiplayer functionality to the game allowing for collaboration between students. Using this mod, students can build their own rockets, observe each others rockets, launch together, meet in orbit… all sorts of fun space stuff.

So I set out to try this out with my son who is a gamer. While my son is a gamer he has never played KSP, while I have played it for years (it’s addictive). This allowed me to see how the environment worked as well as sort of play the role of observing instructor. I got to watch him play around with trying to figure out how to get the physics to work. I was able to put together a simple rocket and show him how I used the thrust, weight, impulse, etc. to build a rocket that got off the ground. He was quickly able to first build a simple working rocket and then started add more and more complicated bits.

A comedy graph showing that understanding of orbital mechanics greatly increases after playing Kerbal Space Program.

SOURCE: xkcd

We ended our game with trying to get both our space craft to rendezvous in orbit… this is essentially learning about orbital dynamics. Having played this for years I knew what to do but I let him play for a while. He was able to observe what happened to his orbit when he applied trust in different directions. Even though I have played for years, this was the first time I used the multiplayer mod. That meant I had to suddenly start working with someone else to get our spacecraft to meet. This turned out to be quite difficult. In fact, due to the complexity of orbital rendezvous, we never successfully managed rendezvous in space. However, based on the speed at which we were learning how to manipulate our orbits, I’m sure that if we had kept trying over and over, we would have eventually gotten there.

Overall, I was very pleased with the level of education my son got out of playing this game. For instance, he was able to observe that if he increased his spacecraft’s orbital speed he could increase its orbital altitude. While he hasn’t seen the equations that govern all this, he was able to observe the effect and will have a much better understanding of what the equations mean when he learns them eventually. Clearly using KSP to give students a fun way of observing these fundamental concepts makes for a great educational experience.

Fake or Real? An Analysis


Write a blog post on your own blog reflecting on this experience. How effective were the strategies you used to determine whether the photos, reviews, and quotes were real or fake? How might the strategies you learned in the answers blog post help you in your personal and/or professional life? How might you share these strategies with your current and/or future learners?

I studied the situations brought up in the blog post by Dan Russell. Remarkably I came up with results that were close… in most cases.

Background Knowledge

A fighter aircraft flying low over New York City.


I used my training in the physical sciences to great effect when analyzing the photograph. I very readily picked out the photograph as a fake. It seemed to me early on that the lighting was very wrong. My background in physical science led me immediately look at angles, lighting, etc. and I noticed the problems with the lighting. Using background knowledge seems like a very good tool. As mentioned in the answers, it was also important to not focus on the obvious part of the photograph alone but to take it all in. If you fixate on just the aircraft, you miss the lighting in the rest of the photograph including its color.

I also used my background knowledge as a basis for the quotes. For instance, I used the fact that I know that Jefferson was a scientist and it seemed very likely to me that he would write or speak about scientific discoveries that was consistent with that time period (quote 2). The time period is all wrong for quote 3. Putting gun in the hands of law-abiding citizen and out of the hands of criminals was not a discussion during Jefferson’s time. Guns we predominantly in the hands of hunters and the militia so I easily guessed this was a fake. Knowing a bit about the personality of Jefferson helped with quote 1. Jefferson was an introvert. He was not big on “acting” anything. As such, he never would have said quote 1.

Reviews Problem

A checkbox review document and pen.


The hotel reviews gave me problems. I didn’t research those quotes so I simply relied on the wording. The second seemed more real to me. It was a simple expression of what someone experienced at the hotel. To me, the first review seemed fake since it goes far into describing details of the hotel that would be in a brochure. My feeling was that it was written by someone who worked at the hotel. I failed to actually look up these reviews and look into the authors as it stated in the answers post.


I think the overall take away is that using our background knowledge can help a lot in picking fake items out of a lineup. However, we must utilize the digital tools at our disposal so that we don’t get fooled. Clearly my background did not give me any insight into the hotel review and so my analysis was flawed. It is important for everyone to keep in mind what they know and look up what they don’t know.

These types of concepts come up from time to time in chemistry where a students understanding of the world is actually wrong. By physically showing the students what they don’t expect I jar them out of their “box” and get them thinking about the world in a new way.

Hole in the Wall: Am I Really Needed?

A hole in a brick wall.

SOURCE: Tiia Monto

Having been a professor for more than ten years now, the TED talk “Hole in the Wall” by Sugata Mitra, is a bit surprising. I’m not sure why it is surprising though. Throughout my life, I learned a variety of things, especially technology related, just by using them. I haven’t read a manual in too many years to remember. I have always just played with it until I understood how to use it. The fact that it surprised me that children can learn complex topics totally on their own is somewhat strange.

As an educator I feel like I can offer my students something that only a teacher can provide. This talk, and the underlying research, sheds light on a new avenue of teaching… instead of being the traditional teacher who provides knowledge, we can provide encouragement. We give the students a focal goal, “we are going to answer _____” and then provide encouragement to keep the students working. With this background in place, the students can then learn the material, by trial and error on their own by simply playing with the system. Sugata Mitra’s research that was presented in the video shows this working even when the children do have an understanding of the same language.

A student asleep at his desk.

SOURCE: Jto Enríquez

The system works, clearly, but I worry that there is a significant issue: unmotivated students. In all of Sugata Mitra’s research, he never describes how many of the total children in the area participated in his system. I’d be willing to bet that the children in the area who interacted with the system are like me, willing to play until I learn how it works. What about those children who are not interested? Teaching chemistry gives me an interesting perspective on this since I have many students who are very interested in learning… just not interested in learning chemistry. How well would the self-learning system work for these students?

My overall view is that the answer to education in the future is a bit complicated. There needs to be a way to promote self-learning and the self-defined sense of wonder in students, just like what Sugata Mitra found, while at the same time pushing non-motivated students along. All students are motivated to learn about things that interest them, but there are things outside those borders that they need to learn as well. My students who want to be nurses don’t see why they need to learn chemistry but they do. It seems to me, that what we really need is a way of making all the topics interesting enough for students to want to learn. Saying “today we are going to learn about the atom” might not be that exciting. If instead the students cut a piece of paper in half over and over again until it is too small to cut, we can then say “you are made up of particle a thousands of times smaller than that.” That connection could prove exciting and an entry point for students who don’t understand the importance of learning about atoms.

Flipped Classroom – A Possibility

The Flipped Classroom


The idea of a flipped classroom has some appeal, especially considering the courses I teach. As a quick overview, in a flipped classroom, student take time, before class, to study course material to get a cursory understanding of the material before the next class session. During class, the instructor aids the students in applying the lesson’s concepts to problems and situations, providing the students feedback along the way.

In introductory and general chemistry courses, there is a lot of “problems” that the students need to learn to master. Currently, I lecture in short segments and then break to work problems dealing with that topic. The lecture segments last from 5 to 10 minutes and then we spend maybe 15-20 minutes working example problems as a class. Removing the lecture portion from the in-class time would free up a lot of time throughout the semester to work more problems. Students always seem to want more in the way of practice problems and I have found that the more problems we do, the better my students understand the material. The problem is that there is currently no way that I can provide enough problems to cover every possibility in the short time I have between topics.

A teacher helping two students with a problem.


The flipped classroom provides an excellent approach to correcting these problems. By having the students view material the night before class and coming to class prepared, I don’t have to worry about having to cover every topic by lecturing on it live. Instead, I can focus my attention on providing my students with high quality example problems to work through that demonstrate the application of each of the topics in that lesson. Additionally, I can provide a wider variety of examples that expand the possible applications for the students. For instance, rather than spending 30 minutes (in 5 minutes sections) lecturing on all the aspects of how to name the variety of chemicals, the students can watch these lectures before class. Then, during class I can provide a large set of example molecules. This will allows student to see the methods I describe in the videos applied to real problems. These examples can illustrate complex issues that a difficult to describe in a simple lecture.

In my head, however, there are complications. For instance, video and resources needs to be created/found for each of the lessons which takes time. This is not as large a liability as the next issue… student responsibility. Students must be responsible for viewing all the course materials before attending class. If a student doesn’t do so, then that student will get little from the example problems. Additionally, I can lecture to the one unprepared students since everyone else is ready and working on the problems. In order for me to implement this system, I would have to find a way to ensure, to the best of my ability, that all of my students are prepared… which may be impossible.

Hang Paper on a Wall Using Scissors

My two wheel spins gave me "hange a piece of paper on the wall" using "scissors".

Results of my wheel spins.

In order to better understand how we can use tools for things they were not intended for, I spun two wheel and got to figure out how to attached a piece of paper to a wall using scissors. I made a video to show my method for doing this.

This process really got me thinking about how many tools can be utilized for new purposes both inside and outside the classroom. It turns out that the hardest part I found was not being able to scissors as a make-shift push-pin… though that would be a possibility. There have been countless times that I have had to improvise on the spot while teaching chemistry lab. You know… something isn’t working right so I have to figure out how to do the same thing with other tools. Not only does this happen in science labs, it also happens in classroom settings. I am just now beginning to get a grip on using cell phones to facilitate better dialog with my students both inside and outside the classroom. Many tools that we use all the time, can be used for a variety of unintended purposes.

Redesign Science Labs to Redefine Student Learning

Lab gloves on a tablet that says "The Digital Lab"

SOURCE: Annthea Lewis; Shutterstock

The laboratory is a fundamental part of science courses. As such, it is critically important to properly move it into the digital environment. In the traditional lab, pairs of students work on a physical activity. This activity often emphasizes a topic that is being covered concurrently in the lecture portion of the course. The students record data from the laboratory experiment and then work together to analyze the data that they have collected. Once the analysis is complete, the student often need to write up their experience as a lab report which described what they did, what results they got, what their analysis entailed, and an interpretation of their results in terms of the topic for the laboratory experiment.

Transitioning the traditional laboratory experiment into the digital realm has to involve three components. First, the laboratory experiment itself needs to be converted. Second, there needs to be a method of digital interactivity between lab partners during the experiment as well as during the subsequent data analysis. Finally, there need to be digital collaboration while creating the lab report.

It is important to find a fully online solution for laboratory experiments. Luckily, Late Nite Labs provides just such a solution. Late Nite Labs offers totally online labs which simulate the real-world laboratory environments. Additionally they provide labs for biology, chemistry, and physics. These attributes make it ideal for converting a traditional laboratory setting into a digital setting.

The difficulty lies in the interaction during the experiment. As far as I can tell, Late Nite Labs does not seem to provide for student interaction. It seems that the students work on experiments on their own. This means that another service is needed to be able to include the interaction between lab partners. After having used WebEx a few times, it should be possible for students to use WebEx to collaborate. One student can have Late Nite Labs open and share their screen while they work on the lab. This would allow both students to observe the experiment and record the results and discuss what they are seeing in real time. Additionally, splitting the lab into two halves, one student could lead part one, while the other student leads part two. Ultimately using WebEx in this way would provide nearly the same collaborative lab experience that students get in a traditional lab setting.

Google Docs is a perfect solution for the final part of the collaborative lab experience, writing a laboratory report. Both students could work on the same document after they finish performing the lab experiment. Additionally, they could remain on WebEx after completion of the lab so they can discuss what they are writing as they write it.

The combination of Late Nite Labs, WebEx, and Google Docs will allow traditional science labs to move into the digital realm while maintaining the collaborative nature and educational value of the traditional science lab. This redesigned system would improve upon the traditional lab environment in that it would allow students who are separated by large distances to perform laboratory experiential in the same way the traditional lab student.

In general, this assignment has gotten me to think outside the box a bit. It made me utilize multiple tools in different ways and in combinations with each other to solve a single, complex problem. Mainly science faculty members get information via email regarding Late Nite Labs, WebEx, or Google Docs, but none of them discuss how to utilize them all to acheive something that none of them can do individually. By merging Late Nite Labs along with WebEx and Google Docs, I was able to incorporate all the collaborative learning experiences that we get in traditional Labs while maintaining a totally online experience. From now on, I need to keep in mind that not only do I need to think about new technology tools in my course, but also look at using multiple tools together to achieve even more.

Educating Good Digital Citizens

The US Capital buidling overlaid with the words: Digital Citizenship.

SOURCE: Democracy Chronicles

Everyone knows that we need to be good citizens. More recently it has begun to be recognized that we need to be a good citizen in the digital realm. This is quite a change from the  peer-2-peer music sharing time that I remember. I think we can all agree, including children and adults, that walking into Best Buy and stealing a CD is wrong. The problem seems to be that some young people view digital media very differently. To some people, downloading music and movies is not wrong. How do we go about changing that view? How do we teach children and young adults that being a good citizen also means being a good digital citizen.

Sign reading "Please Dont Steal My Stuff"

SOURCE: Dave O, “don’t steal”

In my view the difficulty in making connections between the “real-world” and the “digital-world” is one of physicality. Someone clearly wrote and recorded the songs on a CD and a company produced and published the CD. When young people see a song download, it is just data to them. It’s like it is less real to them. Individiuals don’t see the people behind that item who are responsible for it. This disconnect leads to the belief that it is just data and that data can easily be downloaded. Let’s face it, stealing physical things is likely much harder.

Additionally, young people see some artists releasing music free online. This is obviously fine, but it reinforces the belief that music (or data in general) is free when it is online. We need to teach the idea that online data is never free unless it has been stated as being free. We need to teach the idea that all data belongs to someone and they own it.

Why is all this important? Check out this video:

SOURCE: Xin Zhang

In order to achieve better digital citizenship, most educators focus on students.

SOURCE: Common Sense Education

There is a problem in this student focus… the parents. Too many people my age (the parents age) grew up with Napster and p2p file sharing. Too many of them don’t necessarily view data as belonging to people. We can’t just focus on educating children, we need to teach the parents as well. Show them that data is not just 1’s and 0’s. They need to see the people behind the data. Show the starving artist. Americans look up to artists and celebrities and by showing that these are the people being hurt would go a long way.

I am in no way a master of how to do this. I was a musician when I was young and never got into the p2p music sharing. As such, I have always viewed data as property. My wife and I have passed on that view to our son. Luckily for us as educators, Common Sense Education has posted some real-world examples of how to get parents educated in digital citizenship.


Overall, teachers need to teach the students but they need to educate the parents as well. Parents are huge role-models for students and by getting them involved in the process will make our students much better digital citizens. It’s also important the educators practice what they preach and make sure that they are not improperly using materials themselves.

Getting Started with Twitter for Education

Twitter icons with graduation caps.


So, I’ll be honest, I’ve had a Twitter account for years and never used it much. It never seemed all that helpful to me. After seeing how useful it could be for education I decided to give it another go at it. Previously it had been nothing more than a way of getting news about science.

Setting up my Twitter account was simply a matter of logging back into my account. Once I got in I realized that it’s been a while since I was here. Additionally I realized that I never really made a home for myself in Twitter. While I had a basic profile picture, it was old. The colors were the default. I didn’t have a bio… well, you get the idea. So I set out to remedy the situation.

Screencapture of me editting my Twitter profile

Making my Twitter profile seem more like me!

First, the bio. It turns out that I’m really bad at writing about myself. Yeah, I know what I’ve done so far in my life and I know who I am, but none of it seems to me like something that others would want to know. I just had to focus on what was important to me and what others should know about me. It turns out that I am still bad at writing about myself, but I made a reasonable bio. I was a bit excited when I got to pick my profile color. That color, that’s Ohio State scarlet (#BB0000). That’s right, I know the RGB code for the specific shade of scarlet that is Ohio State by memory!

This done, I turned my attention to adding users to what will become a Personal Learning Network (PLN). I used two main sources to do this: Twitter4Teachers and Cybrary Man’s Educational Web Sites. These sites provided me with a wealth of possible Twitter contacts. Twitter4Teachers is nice in that it breaks down users by field so I was able to find some science educators as well as higher education people. I ended up adding 21 peoples from the these two sites.

I also added science users to my account. One thing that is important as a science educator is staying current on science research and science news. Science is always changing and these changes are exciting, especially to science students. This makes keeping up of the advancement of science critical. Most of these sites I already knew about, such as the American Chemical Society, the Royal Society, etc.

A screenshot of my Twitter education list.

My Twitter education list.

It was at this point that I ran into a conundrum. I was following users that fit into two categories, education and science (though some fit into both). After doing a quick google search I found out how to create user lists in Twitter. This makes my life so much simpler. I’m a scientist and we love categorizing and organizing things. Now I have two groups and I can see the post made by each group independently.

While this has been a great start, it is important that I keep the ball rolling. One of the biggest things I feel like I need to do is actually use Twitter. It’s not enough for me read others’ tweets. I need to start contributing myself. I think that once I start to engage through Twitter I will be much more apt to keep using it. I also need to begin using hashtags, both tweeting with them and reading other tweets that use specific ones like #edchat. I think that these are the next big steps I need to take to both utilize the PLN that I have started as well as expanding it and making it even more useful.







TPACK or SAMR in the Classroom: A Critique

Various tools of the student: notebooks, ruler, tablet, and notebook computer.


Our world is ever changing. At the forefront of the change is technological advancement. This advancement is showing itself in every aspect of daily life: smartphones can pay for goods in brick-and-mortar stores, self-driving cars are appearing on our roads, and technology is entering our classroom. The use of technology in the classroom can be daunting to teachers who have never used it in an educational setting. Two models have been put forth to aid in this process. One model, TPACK, is a structural understanding of how an instructor’s knowledge of technology needs to be integrated into their educational framework. The second model, SAMR, is a model of the basic ways in which technology can be integrated into an educational environment.

TPACK Briefly

TPACK is a framework for understanding knowledge integration. TPACK begins with three building blocks: content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and technological knowledge. For example, when I was learning chemistry and physics, I was learning what TPACK refers to as Content Knowledge, CK (Koehler, 2016). The TPACK framework does a valuable service to instructors in that it emphasizes the importance of not only understanding the course content, how to teach, and how to use technology. It points out the critical importance of merging all of that knowledge so that you properly utilize technology to provide the best learning environment and best learning outcomes for the students. The downside of the framework is that it provides no real guidance on how to use technology to maximize educational outcomes. It turns out that this drawback makes it less useful in an immediate, practical sense.


The SAMR Model

The SAMR models parts: substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition.


The SAMR model is more useful, in my opinion, for implementing technology into a classroom. The SAMR model emphasizes the roles that technology can fill in an educational environment. I happen to like the chart provided on the right that describes the SAMR model. Other versions of the diagram show the levels vertically as shown below.

We all use tools in our classrooms. If we replace those tools with technological tools that do the same thing we are simply substituting technology for non-technology. If that technology has some functional improvement then we are using the technology for augmentation. If the technology allows us to completely refine activities in our courses then we are modifying the course. Finally, if the new technology allows completely new tasks to be performed in addition to what was previously possible then we are redefining.

A verticle diagram of the SAMR model.


One of the biggest reasons that I prefer the diagram of the SAMR model shown above to the standard one shown to the left is also one of my chief problems with many of the proponents of the SAMR model. Bray, Oldham, and Tangney (2013) come to the following:

The interventions deemed most successful, according to the review, are those that are classified as being within the transformation space in the SAMR hierarchy, that is, those that achieve significant task redesign or the creation of new, previously inconceivable tasks, through appropriate use of technology. (p. 78)

From this, it would appear that using technology for modification or redefinition of classroom activities are the best. I don’t feel that is true. It has been my experience that all of these levels can be equally valuable. I have found that sometimes, a simple substitution can dramatically improves the activity and lead to better learning outcomes.

Example: Lab Notebooks

A pile of several lab notebooks.


Lab notebooks are a critical tool in science labs. Students, and researchers, use them to record what they are doing, why they are doing it, and all their results (including tables, graphs, and drawings). I have found that using the Notability app on my iPad has worked as a perfect substitute for the traditional lab notebooks. I use the Apple Pencil to hand write everything: procedure, results, etc. I can draw or insert graphs and images. It is a perfect. Within the SAMR model it would be an augmentation to the lab notebook since it syncs all its data with the Cloud so I can access my notes everywhere, something impossible with traditional lab notebooks. This last is highly valuable and is the entire reason that I use it. I don’t find it necessary to reach the transformative levels at all for this tool.


In general the SAMR model is good at showing instructors how they can implement technology in their classroom. Based on their personal preferences and abilities, certain professor may be more comfortable using technology as a substitution rather than in a modification to traditional methods. I think it is critically important to understand that while each of these types of implementations are important, no one level is inherently better than the others, contrary to the more typical hierarchical description that abound.


Bray, A., Oldham, E., & Tangney, B. (2013). The Human Catapult and Other Stories–Adventures with Technology in Mathematics Education. In 11th International Conference on Technology in Mathematics Teaching (ICTMT11) (pp. 77-83).

Koehler, Matthew J. (Accessed 2016) TPACK Explained. Retrieved from