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Learning Rocket Science With Video Games

Soulskill posted about 2 years ago | from the learning-despite-their-best-intentions dept.

Education 64

GNUman writes "Wired has an article about using videogames to get kids into engineering, starting with Kerbal Space Program, a indie physics-driven sandbox where you build your own spaceship and explore space. I have had much fun with this game the past year and I have actually learned a bit of rocket engineering and orbital mechanics while at it. The article also mentions Minecraft, World of Goo, Amazing Alex, Patterns, Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, Fantastic Contraption and SpaceChem. I really like the idea of games that are great fun while fostering creativity and even learning in the process. What games would you add to this list?"

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Scorched Earth! (3, Interesting)

Iniamyen (2440798) | about 2 years ago | (#42266595)

Or "Worms," if you are from a younger generation.

Re:Scorched Earth! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42266685)

Or "Gorillas", that came with QBasic 5.0

Re:Scorched Earth! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42266997)

Or "Angry Birds", if you're even younger.

TIM (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42266597)

The Incredible Machine.

Re:TIM (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42271105)

Wonderful series of games.
Copied several times now, most recently by Rovio.
Taught my daughter a little about electricity, magnetism and gravity.

Lunar Lander! (4, Informative)

HEMI426 (715714) | about 2 years ago | (#42266641)

No mention of Lunar Lander?! :) ... No, I'm not serious.

Re:Lunar Lander! (1)

omi5cron (1455851) | about 2 years ago | (#42266933)

was this from the early 70s? used alot of college computer time to play something that i think had a similar name. i loved that game, if it is the one mentioned!!

Re:Lunar Lander! (1)

HEMI426 (715714) | about 2 years ago | (#42267673)

Yes, the original was a relatively unsuccessful arcade game published by Atari in the '70s. I'm sure there were numerous ports.

Re:Lunar Lander! (1)

camperdave (969942) | about 2 years ago | (#42274453)

No, the original was a mainframe simulation from the late '60s/early '70s. The Atari version was two or three generations removed from the original.

Re:Lunar Lander! (1)

Volastic (2781511) | about 2 years ago | (#42268495)

Put a lot of Quarters into that game as well [] missing is the hugh T handle throttle.

Re:Lunar Lander! (2)

Spottywot (1910658) | about 2 years ago | (#42266935)

Ok, maybe not lunar lander but Lunar Flight [] is worth a look, or Garys Mod [] .

Re:Lunar Lander! (2)

mattack2 (1165421) | about 2 years ago | (#42267789)

I was going to *seriously* mention Lunar Lander. And/or one of the zillion cannon games to teach trajectory.

Re:Lunar Lander! (1)

HEMI426 (715714) | about 2 years ago | (#42268123)

Yeah, I considered a Scorched Earth mention, too...Fun games, and actually useful to some degree.

Re:Lunar Lander! (1)

mattack2 (1165421) | about 2 years ago | (#42268241)

No, I didn't mean Scorched Earth, I'd never heard of it before. I meant []

Though I'm guessing it was one of the later Apple II versions that I saw first, though maybe I'm mixing up the gun from Sabotage ( in my mind for a cannon in one of the Artillery games. (I do see also that the Atari 2600 Artillery Duel has visual cannons, but I never owned that, but may have played it elsewhere.)

Re:Lunar Lander! (1)

dak664 (1992350) | about 2 years ago | (#42273619)

The first Lunar Lander was written for the CDC6400 around 1965 and used both console high-speed vector displays. It was amusing enough as a video game but to actually land without running out of fuel required some knowledge of physics. Can't find any images of it, but from this link [] :

The 6600 featured parallel functional units and used 10 peripheral processors (PPUs) for distributed processing. It sported the fastest clock speed for its day (100 nanoseconds). The 6600 was the first commercial computer to use a CRT console; CRTs and radar screens had been used on earlier machines. CDC checkout engineers created computer games such as Baseball, Lunar Lander, and Space Wars, which became incentives for getting the machines operational. These are thought to be the first computer games that used monitors.

KSP FTW (4, Informative)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about 2 years ago | (#42266689)

If you haven't checked out KSP yet, do it now. It is worth it.

Side note: I showed the demo to a middle school administrator at a yard sale I had a few months ago. She was so impressed, she decided to make the game part of the science curriculum.

Like I said, if you haven't checked it out, do it now. [] You will (probably) not go unimpressed.

Re:KSP FTW (1)

Electricity Likes Me (1098643) | about 2 years ago | (#42267819)

KSP is one of the best things to happen in gaming lately. Even though I had a basic understanding of orbital mechanics, playing around with the rockets in KSP makes the whole thing seem so much more intuitive since you're looking at Duna thinking "right, I need to get at least 2 tanks of fuel into orbit to do a landing...".

Re:KSP FTW (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about 2 years ago | (#42268511)


Disclaimer: that's my video

Re:KSP FTW (1)

Ocker3 (1232550) | about 2 years ago | (#42268817)

That looks quite interesting (I work at a high school), thank you

Re:KSP FTW (1)

SlippyToad (240532) | about 2 years ago | (#42274609)

I've been playing KSP for over a year now (since 0.8x). The best part about it is that there are NO RAILS in the game. You build your ship, you launch it, it flies. If you screw up, it wrecks. There's no fake scripted shit going on in the game. Though I believe the physics are not 100% accurate (for example, it won't do Lagrange points in orbit) they are close enough for most of the things you'd want to do, and the universe is scaled-down so that missions don't actually take months. You do have time-warp to wait out those year-long coasting phases.

The latest version is so feature-rich that I've been struggling to even try each of the new features. You can dock, you can go EVA, you can fly NERVA rockets and ion engines (though they are far more powerful than the real thing as I learned about reading after the Dawn probe).

Basically, KSP inspired me to go and look up EVERY planetary probe and mission from the last half-century. I have become far more aware of the amazing accomplishments of NASA (and the Soviets too) and I think the only real-world mission you can't do right now with it would be Curiosity, but some modder out there is probably working on it.

It is a FANTASTIC tool for education. After playing it for several months I've come to realize how silly all the Star Wars-type dogfights are, how utterly impossible and impractical they would be in a real world environment, and why it is that we don't just have interstellar travel 'cause we wanna. And I've spent a ton of time honing my math skills just to get a feeble grasp of what happens and why.

Re:KSP FTW (1)

Wolvenhaven (1521217) | about 2 years ago | (#42275111)

I've been playing KSP for a while too and it's a fantastic game. The reason you can't do Lagrange points is that it uses patched conics which does "spheres of influence" around planetary bodies and doesn't do gravity interpolation. That being said, the math was good enough to get us to the moon, so for a game as fun as KSP I'm not too upset.

Modernized Rocky's Boots? (2)

The Blue Meanie (223473) | about 2 years ago | (#42266695)

Was there ever an updated/modernized version of Rocky's Boots? I remember that one VERY well as being something that got me into logic, circuits, and programming all in one place. Yes, I'm showing my age. Whippersnappers.

Re:Modernized Rocky's Boots? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42266805)

Was there ever an updated/modernized version of Rocky's Boots?

Great games. Similar games [] , but the links I followed were mostly dead ends.

Armadillo Run (1)

protest_boy (305632) | about 2 years ago | (#42266703)

It's similar in game play to World of Goo, but more technical, and more varied. It's rather old, but it appears that it can still be purchased. []

Re:Armadillo Run (1)

Dekker3D (989692) | about 2 years ago | (#42266917)

I'd say it's Bridge Builder (or Pontifex) meets World of Goo. Except your tools are more straightforward than in WoG and more fun than in the Bridge Builder games.

Re:Armadillo Run (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about 2 years ago | (#42268641)

I don't see much of World of Goo, but what I see is awesome! []

For every geek that's wanted to fly to the moon (4, Interesting)

theskunkmonkey (839144) | about 2 years ago | (#42266745)

Capt'n Skunky here! I'm one of the Community Managers over at KSP and wanted everyone to come on by the forums or stop by our IRC channel on #kspofficial. We've got a great community full of people willing to help you get that rocket into orbit.

Thanks for melting the servers Slashdot, and we mean that in a good way! :)

Capt'n Skunky
KSP Community Manager

Re:For every geek that's wanted to fly to the moon (3, Funny)

X0563511 (793323) | about 2 years ago | (#42268695)

Clearly the server requires more struts. Also, more SRBs. Just because. It's KSP after all! That's how we do things!


SlippyToad (240532) | about 2 years ago | (#42274619)

You can never seem to get enough of them!

The Incredible Machine (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42266775)

Fun factor: 10
Creativity factor: 10
Learning in the process: well, you learned many engineering principles like Murphy's Lay or "if it ain't broken, ain't fix it"

Orbiter (5, Interesting)

gostu (2473660) | about 2 years ago | (#42266799) []
Realistic space flight simulator. The most fun way of learning orbital mechanics ever!

Mod Parent Up (4, Informative)

kupekhaize (220804) | about 2 years ago | (#42267041)

Mods, please mod the parent up. Orbiter is a 100% free realistic simulator that is every geek's dream. It strives for realistic physics (in most cases, there are still some bugs); and includes lots of space vehicles including the Shuttle (which is damn near impossible to launch and achieve a stable orbit on manual control, just like you'd expect). Very entertaining simulator. It has a very extensive selection of mods ( is one of the more popular places to find them).

My friend has modded his version so much that he's built and launched his own Space Station. He has some of the vehicles timed so well that he can launch from Cape Canaveral, and within 26 minutes match the ISS's orbital specs and dock with it. Each time he plays the game he's reloading his prior state and launching new cargo and expanding the station.

Aside from the Shuttle there are also lots of next generation vehicles including orbiters with SCRAM engines to help achieve orbit and other items as well. There's also a recent mod to add all of the future and planned SpaceX vehicles as well.

When I first started playing, I was familiar with some math but knew hardly anything about orbital mechanics. Playing the game at first was fun --- there's nothing quite like launching the space shuttle straight up, then turning off the shuttle engines and watching the thing do backflips at 10K off the ground -- but once you start wanting to achieve something useful, like a dock with the ISS you've really got to start to understand what is going on in order to get where you're going.

Re:Mod Parent Up (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42267589)

Yer durn tootin! - one apiece, couldn'a said it better.

Re:Mod Parent Up (1)

barjam (37372) | about 2 years ago | (#42268063)

The perfect game for me would be a KSP + Orbiter Mix.

For those looking at orbiter be sure to get the directx plugin. Windows 7 pretty much requires it for decent performance @ full screen.

Re:Mod Parent Up (2)

SlippyToad (240532) | about 2 years ago | (#42274643)

Half the fun of playing Kerbal is watching your hapless Kerbalnauts scream in terror as your shuddering monstrosity climbs through the atmosphere.

All except Jeb. He's got nerves of steel (or brains of mud, one is never sure).

Re:Orbiter (2)

PseudonymousCoward (161283) | about 2 years ago | (#42268707)

Orbiter and the work of its community of add-on developers allows (but doesn't require) the user to learn at least the following aspects of "rocket science":
  - What sort of path a rocket should take to get from a launchpad to a stable orbit
  - What sort of maneuvers a spacecraft needs to use to change from one orbit to another, e.g. to rendezvous with another spacecraft
  - How to plan a mission to the Moon, or another body in the solar system
  - How to use the gravity of one planet to shape a trajectory to another, as Voyager did for its "Grand Tour"
  - The kind of systems a spacecraft needs, and their realistic or plausible capabilities
  - The sequence of stages to build something as complex as the ISS
  - Various ways that spacecraft (winged or not) can interact with a planet's atmosphere to manage energy during re-entry or on a fly-by
And all of this is free (as in beer), a precious gift from Dr. Martin Schweiger and the many other developers who have contributed uncounted hours of their time. See also the community's forum at

Civilization (1)

SlickNic (1097097) | about 2 years ago | (#42266815)

The Civilization games are quite educational, you gain some understanding of a broad array of topics through your tech tree choices. While it's not science exactly you certainly need to understand the different forms of government and religion in order to grow your cities and your civilization.

No science (1)

Roger W Moore (538166) | about 2 years ago | (#42269341)

While it's not science exactly

No it is not science at all. Civilization is a great game but its educational value as far as science is concerned is zero and the way that government and religion (in the versions which have that) affect things is more dependent on game mechanics than history. If you want a more educational game (in terms of history) try Europa Universalis III.

Minecraft?? (0)

Spy Handler (822350) | about 2 years ago | (#42266817)

I didn't RTFA but how on earth does Minecraft help kids learn science?

Arithmetic maybe, since kids can learn to count the (small) number of pixels in the godawful block graphics.

Re:Minecraft?? (1)

Sowelu (713889) | about 2 years ago | (#42266841)

You can build simple electronics systems in it. Or not-so-simple, as I'm sure youtube videos by people with too much time on their hands can illustrate. (I've seen some very impressive adders.)

Bridge Builder ! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42266855)

I prefer the classic one to the new 3d pontifex ones though.

KOHCTPYKTOP: Engineer of the People (4, Interesting)

Sowelu (713889) | about 2 years ago | (#42266883)

Build chips out of silicon and metal. Also, Ruckingenur II, where you reverse-engineer things. Both by ZachTronics. [] Neither of them are very long games, but the early levels of Engineer of the People could easily accompany a couple days in a high school science course.

Re:KOHCTPYKTOP: Engineer of the People (1)

dabadab (126782) | about 2 years ago | (#42271335)

I wonder how many /. readers realise, that KOHCTPYKTOR is basically "constructor" in lowercase Cyrillic letters.

Portal (1)

bradvoy (686502) | about 2 years ago | (#42267203)

Portal is the game that first got my son really thinking about concepts like conservation of momentum, even though he didn't know that's what he was thinking about.

How about OpenSim plus a viewer? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42267405)

I know it's not a "game" in the same sense as the other suggestions, but OpenSim plus a "Second Life" viewer (there are several to choose from) will allow the creation of user content that can get quite complex. Creating various content can provide exposure to...
= Scripting (via Linden Scripting Language, aka "LSL")
= Graphics design
= 3D design

Sure you could just sign up for a Second Life account, but then you'd be limited to all their conditions, whereas with your own OpenSim install, you can build whatever you want.

The Second Life viewer:
More on SL viewers:
The "Third Party Viewer" directory:

Starcon II - Astronomy (2)

MavenW (839198) | about 2 years ago | (#42267415)

Many years ago, I was playing an early RPG game, where I had named my characters after the moons of Saturn -- Titan, Mimas, Enceladus... A younger co-worker walked past and noticed. He got all excited and asked me, "So you played Starcon II?" I told him no, those were just the names of Saturn's actual moons. He thought someone had made up all those names just for the game. And all the constellations as well. Turns out he knew a lot more actual Astronomy than he realized. He just didn't know which things were real and which ones were made up. Pkunk? Shofixiti? Utwig? as opposed to Camelopardalis, Pyxis, or Vulpecula?

Re:Starcon II - Astronomy (1)

trout007 (975317) | about 2 years ago | (#42267619)

That is still my all time favorite game.
Even after the main story I play melee to this day.

touch control system (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42267419)

Hyperplane Interactive's TCS

Under development, but looks pretty awesome:

Re:touch control system (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42268257)

FTFY: []


Re:touch control system (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42268689)

Wow, it's like the StarTrek ship computer.

Widget Workshop (1)

boneglorious (718907) | about 2 years ago | (#42267745)

Widget Workshop was a great mac game back in the 90s which gave you a lot of components to build things, ranging from electronic circuits to mechanical machines.

Osmos (1)

m0n0RAIL (920043) | about 2 years ago | (#42267747)

Osmos by Hemisphere Games [] gives players an intuitive understanding of Newton's laws of motion and orbital mechanics. It's a great, non-mathematical introduction to physics.

Why is visual pinball not on the list??? (1)

Joe_Dragon (2206452) | about 2 years ago | (#42268171)

You can build pinball games and some even non pinball stuff useing it.

Zero Robotics (1)

Zentakz (618981) | about 2 years ago | (#42268523)

Check out Zero Robotics [] . It is an annual programming competition for high school students that runs during the fall. During the season students write C++ programs for the SPHERES satellites developed by MIT and run online simulations. After several virtual rounds, the championship competition is live from the space station hosted by an astronaut. This year's season is just finishing up, and the finals will be held on January 11. It is also expanding to a limited group of of middle schools this summer.

Anyone can sign up for an account and write programs and for and run simulations of SPHERES from the web-based interface. There has already been one general public competition that was mentioned on /. a while ago where the finalists had their code demonstrated in space. We hope to have more in the future.

(Full disclosure: I am one of the co-founders)

Crayon Physics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42268769)

Crayon physics was even in the humble indy bundle if I remember correctly. Anyway a very cool game like world of goo.

Race Into Space (1)

TheGoodNamesWereGone (1844118) | about 2 years ago | (#42269907)

Not a scientific sim, but it does accurately describe the hardware used to get to the Moon during the space race. []

Nothing quite like engineering... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42269935)

Is there an unemployment simulator out there too?

Gizmos & Gadgets (1)

blerbl (2794539) | about 2 years ago | (#42272169)

It is a childhood favorite [] of mine.

Challenging language game (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42272515)

This game isnt science but it does require lots of brain juice,

Re:Challenging language game (1)

oppositefrog (2794695) | about 2 years ago | (#42282331)

This game is hard, but I like it. Sentences are selected from Project Guttenberg and then scrambled and rained down on you tetris style.

Simple Physics and Wind Tunnel (1)

Coz (178857) | about 2 years ago | (#42275161)

An iOS, [] and Android [] app for tablets and phones, Simple Physics works very well to educate kids on forces, leverage, relative strength, etc. Build a bridge and drop rocks on it to see how many it can hold. Build a dam to withstand a flooding river. Build a shelter to withstand a bomb blast, all from the same simple "wooden" materials. My kids play this for hours when I let them.

There's also an excellent Wind Tunnel [] app for iOS that acts as a simple 2-D wind tunnel, with particle streams, smoke, pressure differentiation, etc.

Fun toys, and the kids learn while they play 'em.

what about GalaxyStar? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42309193)

this is a simple game for the iphone/ipad, using simple swipe gestures to fly a spaceship around the solar system.
It uses NASA graphics, simulated gravity, and has information about the planets.
A good simple game.

SPRACE Game (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#42397879)

SPRACE Game [] is a nice action game that teaches quantum physics for kids, sponsored by the Brazilian government. It's free, available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

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