One small, green step: Using Kerbal Space Program in the physics classroom

I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most, K-12 teachers are familiar with Minecraft. It’s an open “sandbox” world where players can interact with their blocky environment and build whatever wonderful creations they can think up. For the past few years, it’s been a wildly popular game with children and adults alike, and the Internet abounds with stories of teachers either incorporating Minecraft into the classroom or else bemoaning that their students use school computers and laptops to surreptitiously play the game when they should be working.

Comic: Randall Munroe, CC BY-NC 2.5

Kerbal Space Program is a similar game in the sense that it’s a “sandbox”. You start at a space center (approximating Cape Canaveral) on a fictional planet in a fictional solar system similar to our own, complete with many planets, moons, and even gas giants. Your home planet, Kerbin, is populated by a race of little green aliens called Kerbals. At your space center, you can build rocket ships and space planes out of a giant variety of parts, snapping the pieces together like legos. For example, a basic rocket ship might have a command capsule (i.e., a cockpit) at the top, a fuel tank, a rocket engine, and some landing struts. More complex spaceships might have literally thousands of individual parts.

After they build spaceships, players have the option to fly them out into space. The catch is that this isn’t like Star Wars: real Newtonian physics applies to everything! Spaceships in a vacuum don’t work anything like the airplane-style spaceships in sci-fi movies. Learning how manipulate a spaceship’s orbit is extremely complicated. Just take a look at this absolutely mind-blowing orbital rescue video created by Scott Manley, skipping ahead to 13:00 if you just want to catch the final approach:

In addition, the game requires strict resource management. Rocket engines need both fuel and oxygen to burn, while atmospheric jet engines only need fuel. If you rely on any electricity-based parts like floodlights, you will also need to install batteries and a power source like solar panels. The little jets which help you adjust your ship’s rotation in space require tanks of monopropellant. The only resources you aren’t required to handle are those related to life support like food and breathable oxygen—but maybe that’s a blessing, because you don’t want to watch your little green spaceman asphyxiate or starve!

Comic: Randall Munroe, CC BY-NC 2.5
Comic: Randall Munroe, CC BY-NC 2.5

Due to its realistic modeling of Newtonian physics, Kerbal Space Program can plausibly be used as a classroom tool to demonstrate concepts such as orbital mechanics, weight vs. mass, specific impulse, and the importance of the thrust-to-weight ratio in overcoming both gravity and inertia. But where do you begin?

Luckily, the physics-teaching vanguard is already probing out into the far reaches of the Kerbol system! Here is a captioned photo album an AP Physics teacher created showing the use of Kerbal Space Program in a lesson:

http://imgur.com/a/UtxAk

And here’s the teacher’s full explanation of the lesson from Reddit.com:


There seemed to be some interest in how I used KSP in a high school classroom, so I figured I would finally get around to writing this up. I am cursing my laziness however, because I didn’t know that twitch deleted recorded streams. Therefore, my plan of cutting together a couple videos of my kids actually using ksp was ruined. Oh well, I’ll just have to do it again next year!

This project was less about using KSP to teach a physics concept (although they did learn a lot), but more a recreation of the various mission control styles of play that have been posted on this sub before. Some background, all the students involved (19 in the class, 10 participated) were in my AP Physics B class, and we did this after the AP test. Unfortunately, the original project was severely scaled back as Prom, finals, senior week, Six Flags fieldtrip and other AP tests all filled up the limited time we had available. In addition, I had to miss several days to go to various workshops because of new science standards, so several of the worksheets provided we designed to be done while I was gone.

This was the original plan however we wound up scrapping most of it. I wound up building the students their rocket (two of the actually) and we never used the corporation idea. Pretty much we had 14 days, and the schedule went something like this.

  • Day 1: Explanation of activity and intro to KSP
  • Days 2-5: Video and calculation worksheets
  • Day 6: First attempt at basic orbital flight (using Gemini from NovaPunch)
  • Day 7: Watch and analyze stream videos after a day of spectacular failures
  • Day 8: Attempt 2 (success!)
  • Day 9: Launch moon rocket into orbit
  • Day 10-11: Try desperately to make mun rendezvous
  • Day 12: Manage to make mun rendezvous and plow into the mun several times
  • Day 13: At my students suggestion, take another review day. Watch the streams as a class and have me provide critique and suggestions. I would walk through students not just what the mistake was, but what factors lead up to it (communication and such)
  • Day 14: Would have been landing day and attempt a return as quickly as possible, but 0.20 came out the night before, and with my steam install in broke the rocket we were using. The students never actually landed or returned.

The Results

The kids seemed to get a lot out of it, even if there was a lot of frustration. I think 4 of them went out and bought the game afterwards and a couple have been in touch sharing what they have accomplished or asking questions (most of them graduated right after this). The success of the set-up has convinced my tech department to try and install KSP on a server build, so this year I am going to come up with lessons for angular momentum and kepler’s laws to use in the units themselves.
I really wish I had saved the video streamed from the flight computer, there were some pretty hilarious failed launches, but after each one they improved.

Worksheets:

The really crappy reference sheet I made. I think I only gave them page 1 of this

Orbital Mechanics in Kerbal Space Program that was posted on this sub

Video worksheet

Students watched the youtube videos as a class (to find the videos just look up the titles). The back is pictures and data for the 3 stage rocket they took to the mun. It’s not pretty, but I tried giving them as generous of a fuel budget as possible. At one point they found out it goes interplanetary pretty easy.

Math Worksheet

For those of you who want a crappy lesson plan, I rarely write them so it is pretty bad, but I used this for a requirement for a grad school class.

Videos:

So it’s early, and I am likely rambling a bit, so if you have any questions feel free to ask. I promise that when I do this again next year I will take more pictures and video!


I don’t teach physics myself, but I’ve been playing Kerbal Space Program for a few weeks. To add to the advice above, it’s possible to find user-made modifications and plugins which enhance the educational potential of KSP. For example, one modification called MechJeb provides an autopilot computer along with several information screens detailing the physical properties of your spaceship:

Information and autopilot functions provided by the MechJeb plugin. Image: r4m0n

And the Kerbal Engineer plugin provides similar kinds of detailed physical information about your spaceship:

Statistics from the Engineer plug-in. Image: draeath
Statistics from the Engineer plug-in. Image: draeath

What do you think? Computer simulations of various kinds have had a place in the physics classroom for years. Is there room for a more whimsical, fleshed-out “edutainment” product like Kerbal Space Program in your curriculum?


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3 thoughts on “One small, green step: Using Kerbal Space Program in the physics classroom

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