Kerbal Space Program & STEM

by Alex Ginsberg, 8th grade

Kerbal Space Program, a free-play or “sandbox” video game, is a program that can redefine how middle schoolers and high schoolers alike learn about astrodynamics, orbital mechanics, aerodynamics and basic physics in a fun and enjoyable way. This fact was the motive behind The Philadelphia School’s choice to utilize the app during a winter intensive (elective) focused on the aforementioned STEM concepts. The idea for the intensive was proposed by 8th graders Tony Regli, Grayson Wade, and me, and was facilitated by 7th grade teacher Steve Bartholomew and technology integration specialist Matt Murray.

In our intensive, we had 16 student aeronautical engineers who were divided into four teams. Each team aimed to complete as many challenges and tasks as possible. Some examples of those challenges included successfully launching one’s own rocket, entering into orbit around the home planet, initiating an encounter, completing a flyby, and landing on the moon. In order to gain the most points as a team and win the simulated Kerbal Space Race, experienced student team leaders had to coach fellow students new to the game on how to approach each challenge.

The challenges were scaffolded, beginning with easier tasks, like escaping the atmosphere, followed by more complicated missions, like intercepting with the moon or leaving the earth’s sphere of influence. The simpler the task, the fewer points awarded; the harder the task, the more points awarded. As a student leader in the intensive, I think the points system highly encouraged students to try their hardest to complete a challenge in order to win the space race. It created competition, emulating the feeling of the original space race, which in turn challenged other students to achieve the next task and beat their opponents on the other team - in a constructive way, of course.

Every class would usually start with a video covering a current event in space, like an important recent rocket launch or a novel planetary discovery, which correlated with a subsequent discussion. From lunar landing conspiracy theories to the magic of the “low tech” slide rule, conversations involved relevant astronomy topics and made connections to great minds like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Sometimes we would view tutorials on various aspects of the game, like how to build a more reliable rocket or how to get into an orbit more quickly. After this initial explanation, one of the student leaders would demonstrate one or two strategies for how to play the game. We would then proceed to team time during which students had the ability to go into the game and try to accomplish as many challenges as they could individually or with the helpful input of a nearby student or facilitator.

I feel that the Kerbal Space Program is an engaging and accurate way to teach students about orbital mechanics and physics, but it must be well organized with good supervision and structure so students always have clear goals. Lastly, I hope the intensive is offered for years to come as part of the growing TPS STEM program.

Learn more about what we did here.