Kerbal Space Program: better than working at NASA?

Comic: Randall Munroe, CC BY-NC 2.5

XKCD creator and real-life NASA alum Randall Munroe has mentioned Kerbal Space Program in previous comics, but this is the clearest endorsement of its educational value he’s given. And even as a layperson when it come to physics, I readily agree: it’s become natural for me to think in terms of moving frames of reference, conic section trajectories, and other unintuitive concepts we don’t need to deal with down here on the ground. Using a little spaceship to push big asteroids around also shows you how important it is to precisely align thrust vectors through the center of mass– which explains why the space shuttle had such weird, oddly-angled rocket engines!

As KerbalEdu nears completion, I hope more and more physics students get to supplement their classroom learning with guided Kerbal Space Program scenarios.

Using to generate and share vocabulary activities

Hello, NEALLT 2014! I’m an educational technologist and ESL teacher who teaches adult students at the University of Pittsburgh English Language Institute.

I’ve written previously about many of the student-oriented features of, and I will talk about some of those features during this talk. This entry complements the previous one. It focuses on some of features of Quizlet best suited for collaboration, including how to make a vocabulary study set from an existing vocabulary list stored in a Word document; how to copy and remix your colleagues’ Quizlet study sets for use in your own classes; and how to combine your and your colleagues’ study sets to create vocabulary master lists.

Please make use of the comments section! Presentations can be awfully one-sided and didactic, so keeping a real-time backchannel open for participants enriches the experience for everyone!

1. Creating a Quizlet set from your existing materials

For this demonstration, I will be using this Microsoft Word file. It’s a real document used in my institution, and if you’re a language instructor, you likely have many like it yourself. Feel free to use the file to follow along on your own computer while we create our first Quizlet study set!

1. Create a Quizlet account if you have not done so yet.
2. Click on the create-a-set button in the top navbar.
3. Give your study set a title and description.
4. Under “Enter your terms,” choose import data.

Notice this section:


We need to edit our materials until they match this format: exactly one term and one definition per line separated by a tab. Luckily, if you copy and paste a table from Microsoft Word, a tab is automatically inserted between each cell of a row. Our goal, then, is to pare down a table of vocabulary words until it only has a column of single-line words and a column of single-line definitions.

5. Open your MS Word document. Here is what mine looks like:

cv sheet 1

6. Delete all information except for the words and definitions. For example, in the chart above, we must delete the columns for parts of speech and collocations.

cv sheet 27. Delete or consolidate any extra word forms or definitions so that there are no line breaks within a word or definition. It’s fine if your text wraps naturally at the end of a line or cell; you just can’t have any manual line breaks, like in “Identify / Identification” or in the definitions for “Individual” in the list above. Make sure all extra line breaks and spaces are deleted.

cv sheet 4

8. Highlight your list of words and definitions and copy them. Click back over to your web browser and find the copy-paste box. Paste your words and definitions into the box.


If your data is formatted correctly, you should see appropriate results in the Live Import Preview box:


If not, you need to manually edit the text in the “Copy and Paste your data” box and/or tweak the “Between Term and Definition” and “Between Definition and Term” settings until your data is parsed correctly by the Quizlet importer.

9. Click on the import-button button.

10. Choose the correct languages on the the “Enter your terms” chart at the bottom of the page. It is important to select the correct languages so that Quizlet knows which text-to-speech engine to use to pronounce the words and definitions on your flash cards. In my case, both languages are English.


11. Double-check your words and definitions to make sure that everything imported correctly. Once you’re ready, click the “Save” button. Congratulations! You just created your first Quizlet study set!

2. Managing your Quizlet study sets

It’s easy to see and manage the list of sets you have created or used.

1. Mouse over your account name in the top-right corner of Quizlet’s navigation bar. Click on “Your Sets.” (Tip: Clicking directly on your account name brings you to the same page.)


2. This page is the nerve center of your account. You can access every Quizlet set you have ever created or studied; you can see any classes you are a member of; and you can create or join new classes. Simply use the buttons and links on the “Your Sets” page to accomplish whatever you need to do.

Tip: You can send people the link to your account page. For example, mine is If you visit that link, you can see every public study set I have created or studied.

3. Remixing Quizlet sets using Copy and combine

Quizlet has a few simple but very powerful tools for remixing study sets. First, let’s take a look at Copy.

3a. Using Copy to remix a set

There are several reasons you may wish to copy a set. Perhaps you’ve found someone else’s vocabulary set which you wish to tweak and use in your own class; perhaps you want to use separate copies of a given Quizlet study set in different sections of a course so that students only compete with their direct classmates in the study games; or perhaps you want to have one private copy of a study set and one communal copy which other teachers can edit.

1. Navigate to the study set you wish to copy. Mouse over “More Tools” and choose “Copy.”


2. After you click “Copy,” you are brought to the “Create a New Study Set” page. However, the old set is already filled in for you in the “Enter your terms” section! Simply make whatever changes you want (if any), give the set a name, and save it.

3b. Using “Combine” to remix a set

When we used “Copy” in the previous section, it created a new study set based on the content of an old study set. “Combine” works similarly. It creates a new study set which combines all of the items of multiple study sets.

1. Find some study sets you want to combine. For example, here is a list of three study sets I have created for the University of Pittsburgh English Language Institute: one for weeks 2-4, one for weeks 5-7, and one for weeks 8-11 of our Level 6 course. It would be appropriate to combine these three sets together into one master set as a resource for students doing a comprehensive review at the end of the semester.


2. Click on one of the sets. It does not matter which one. Then, mouse over “More Tools” and choose “Combine.”


3. If you are combining sets that you have created, the next step is easy: simply press the “+” button next to the appropriate sets in the “Your Sets” window. Otherwise, you will need to use the “Search Sets” box to find the other set(s) you wish to combine. In this example, we wish to add the “Weeks 5-7” and “Weeks 8-11” sets to the combination.


4. Once you have selected all of the sets you wish to combine, choose “Create a set” and click “Go.”


5. Finish creating your new set by giving it a name, making any necessary tweaks to the words or definitions, and clicking “Save.”

This has been a whirlwind tour of just a couple of the features of Quizlet most useful for collaborating with your fellow teachers. Following these instructions, you can create Quizlet study sets based on your or your colleagues’ Microsoft Word vocabulary lists; you can copy and tweak your colleagues’ Quizlet sets to use in your own classes; and you can combine multiple study sets into master lists.

How have you used Quizlet in your own teaching? Have you ever collaborated with a colleague through Quizlet? Do you have any tips to share? Post your story in the comments below!

Playful Learning is here

This post was written by Lauren B. Collister, librarian-publisher and scholar at the University of Pittsburgh

Do you remember what it was like to play?

Playful Learning is a nationwide initiative to promote the the use of games in education, offering a free online portal for teachers to explore the use of games for learning. Wondering how games can be useful in educational contexts? Check out their justifications for the use of games in the classroom, including such mainstays as increasing student engagement and enabling trial-and-error “freedom to fail” learning.

The site has a brand new beta available for perusal, and although reviews and community content are scarce so far, you can see that this site is ready to be a go-to tool for including educational play in the classroom.



Playful Learning isn’t just a search tool — it’s a community of educators and game creators working together to incorporate games into the educational toolkit. Not only can you discover the games that can help in your classroom, but you can have access to lesson plans, implementations, and other resources created and shared by educators.

Over 100 games have been added to the database so far. They are categorized in roughly a dozen ways, including by genre, target age range, learning topics, cost model, typical play timescale, and even whether they provide some form of quantitative or qualitative assessment reporting tool. Start by searching for your field, using broad terms to get many options returned. Here’s an example search for games relevant to math:


From this page, you can click on a game to see information about it and get ideas for how to incorporate it into your classroom. For instance, check out the page for Civilization IV:


The landing page for a game includes screenshots of the game in action, a brief summary, a description of learning topics, and (eventually) reviews from teachers who have used the game in their class.

Scrolling down, you can find an example of how to implement this game in your classroom. This includes learning standards that the game can help achieve, goals for the use of the game in the classroom, and a step-by-step guide for creating a suggested lesson plan to use the game. It also includes ideas for assessment using the game as well as potential pitfalls. Finally, there is a discussion forum for educators to collaborate on creating resources to incorporate these games in the classroom.

Playful Learning includes both free online games and games that require a purchase or a subscription. It’s still in beta, but I encourage everyone to take a look and start contributing to this fantastic new resource.

Creative Commons License
Playful Learning is here by Lauren Collister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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:

And here’s the teacher’s full explanation of the lesson from

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.


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.


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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