Kerbal Space Program is somewhat like a NASA simulator except it's set in a fictional star system and 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 Despicable Me.
It's still in alpha, so not all of the features are yet in place. Players can and do provide feedback and feature suggestions. When the final game is ready, it will sport a career mode with a series of missions, a limited parts buying budget, and a personnel manager. Right now, however, the game is an open sandbox; players set their own challenges. What emerges 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 mean the difference between reaching mission goals or crashing and burning.
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.
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