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.