I’ve been playing around with the Kerbal Space Program recently because (1) it’s fun and (2) I want to know enough to be able to help my kids during their post-AP project, at least from a technical / computer perspective. My mission — have a Kerbal walk on the moon (and return home safely).
The first step was designing the vehicle. I went with a one-man capsule, a small engine, and lots of extra fuel (to give me plenty of room for mistakes on my first landing mission.
I made sure to add landing struts, a ladder to allow Jebediah a quick EVA, and, of course, a parachute for the command pod. The launch vehicle itself was designed in two stages, four large engines and fuel tanks to get the craft past 10 km, and another single large tank and engine to easily push into orbit, leaving the lander vehicle itself fully fueled in orbit.
The launch was very straightforward. I controlled the engines carefully under 10 km to keep the velocity below 200 m/s and avoid overheating. At 12 km I performed an orbital tilt to 45 degrees, got speed up, and then coasted to the highest point in the path, at which point I turned again on an orbital maneuver.
Separation was clean.
This left me with the landing craft fully fueled in a stable Earth orbit, ready to begin maneuvers to head to the Mun.
As I approached the moon I adjusted my orbit to bring me down near “the bright side,” and set my orientation to maintain a retrograde orbit.
After a few minutes of sweating with a light hand on the thrusters while maintain a retrograde orbit, I finally had the lander down on the ground (and even remembered to extend the landing struts!)
The external tanks were just barely empty (I hadn’t separated them during the descent as I thought perhaps the extra fuel might be nice for the Mun launch. However, upon reaching the surface, they were just barely drained. Easy quiet separation. Now for the EVA. I extended the ladders and Jebediah had himself a short stroll on the Mun before climbing back in for the trip home.
From there, a simple launch to get back into Mun orbit, then an orbital transfer back to Earth, which brought Jebediah down nice and safe and ready for his next mission!
Key Learning — having all that extra fuel was nice, but next time I could do things MUCH more efficiently at the landing stage, allowing me to launch a much lighter landing vehicle. Next challenge – Landing on Minmus and returning safely!
A couple weeks ago I had this crazy idea for a four-week project to do with my AP-C students after their AP exams. Typically we embark on a number of individualized, small-team projects, coupled with a study of semiconductor physics. This year, however, I wanted to change it up. I want to build excitement for the sciences and engineering. I want to try and truly capture the kids’ interest. So, taking a lead from a physics teacher tweet, I began exploring the Kerbal Space Program.
I first wrote about some basic ideas around the program last week in Kerbals in Space? Gamifying the Physics of Space Exploration. Since then, with the help and guidance of a variety of folks ranging from our school’s IT experts all the way to Kerbal Space Program enthusiasts from around the world, I think we have a pilot program (pun intended) ready to launch (pun still intended). As we blast into this new foray, my larger goal is to explore whether something as simple as the Kerbal Space Program or other “gamified” simulation has the potential for implementation earlier in the K-12 curriculum. If it works with seniors, could it be used with juniors? With freshman? With junior high students? With 5th and 6th graders? All with the ultimate goal of launching students into the challenge and excitement available in STEM disciplines.
We need to grab the attention of our up and coming society at an early age, and allow them to observe the need for math, science, writing, communication, and technology, and how these skills open doorways for them to engage in such fun and challenging activities. There are tons of good programs out there promoting interest in STEM, from robotics programs to alternative fuel teams to green teams… I’m hoping the excitement of space, presented in such a fun way, allows students to reach some key conclusions on their own. First, just playing the sim is fun. For a while. Then you realize no matter what you do you tend to crash into things and can’t make it to any moons or planets. It’s time to pull out paper, pencil, calculator, and jump on the Kerbal WIKI to do some research and learn about dynamics, energy, transfer orbits, staging, etc. In this way, the students themselves are driving their own learning with a purpose, a pull system, so to speak, as opposed to pushing information out to them and then asking them to apply what they’ve learned.
It’ll be a fun experiment. I’ve completed the Kerbal Space Program Education Project definition page. We’ll see how it goes from here, and if anyone wants to join us on this exploration, we’d love to have you along!
So last year I took every single question from the last 17 NY Regents Physics exams, organized them by topic, and printed them neatly into worksheet / workbook formats for myself and others to use. They’ve been pretty popular, but have also been a fairly high maintenance item, as I have been receiving at least 10-15 e-mails per week about the worksheets. Some requests have come from teachers asking if I have created an answer sheet to go with them. Other requests have been from students looking to check their answers. Some have even been from students posing as instructors attempting to find the answers to the worksheets. But far and away, the most popular question has centered around whether I might offer a print version of the worksheets.
It’s taken awhile, but I’ve finally cleaned up all the sheets, arranged them into a workbook format, solved every single problem, added answer sheets, and sent them off for publication. The result — yesterday, The Ultimate Regents Physics Question and Answer Book was released.
I’m planning on leaving the individual worksheets available for download on the APlusPhysics site — the book is merely provided as a convenience for those who’d rather have a hard copy, bound compendium of all the worksheets, with the answers included. Because these sheets are also popular as homework assignments, quizzes, etc., I don’t plan on posting the answer sheets publicly… that’s just making things a little too easy for students hoping to avoid productive work. The list price on the book is $11.99, which (typically) Amazon discounts within a few weeks of publication. I think that’s a reasonable price for a resource that took me many, many hours to compile, with the goal of hopefully recouping the costs required to publish the book within a year or so if all goes well.
Having said that, last night I received a troubling e-mail. Before even one copy had sold, I received a request asking if I would donate copies of the workbook to cover an entire physics course at a school. Now, I understand there’s no harm in asking, so I politely responded that the cost for any donated/promotional copies come directly out of the pocket of a high school teacher (me), and that the entire content was already available for download and printing direct from the APlusPhysics website. The follow-up, however, left me troubled. The response stated that the copies were for an inner city school and therefore computers and Internet access to download and print the files wasn’t reasonable.
Maybe I’m being naive, but I have trouble believing that there are school districts (and individual schools) that are SO poor that there isn’t a single computer with an Internet connection anywhere in the school. Or let’s say that there aren’t ANY computers in the school — how can not one teacher have access to a computer and Internet to obtain the files on their own time? And in what world is it reasonable that I should pick up the costs to print and ship a volume of copies to a school where they can’t find a way to download and print freely available files (which I also pay to host)?
Rant ended. I’m more than happy to give away a ton of my work (and time) for free, but there are some costs associated with making these resources available. The software to create the site, the hosting fees, publication costs, licensing costs, etc. Almost all of the content in the books is already freely available on the site for educational use, and I LOVE when folks make use of these resources. But, the reality is that all of these things have some cost, and if I want to continue to build a terrific physics resource for our students, a few of the items on the site have to generate enough income to cover the costs of the site.
Now, with that out of the way, I’m excited to be diving into the next project at full speed — review / guide books for the new AP-1 and AP-2 courses. Background work / development has been going on for over a year, and, if all goes as planned, the first draft should be underway within a couple weeks!!!!!
So, not long ago I came across a sandbox simulation software package / game called Kerbal Space Program. It allows you to build space vehicles on the fictional planet of Kerbal, launch the vehicles, attempt to put Kerbals into orbit, help them travel to other planets, etc. etc. Cute. But as I looked into it a little more, it has quite a bit of scientific and educational merit. The physics modeling is pretty good, the game is extremely addictive, and I believe it could be a great way to help students in my AP Physics C course transition from pure physics to applied physics and engineering in our last few weeks of school following the AP Exam. So I bought the game. Or, rather, I bought a copy, and the school bought five copies for the kids!
Right now I’m still working out the details of the project. In general, though, I think it’d be fun to have the kids work through the simulation with a set of challenges as part of a “space race.” Each group of 3 students will form their own space exploration team. With safety of all Kerbals as their prime directive, they will be asked to complete a series of tasks, documenting and analyzing their work along with each design and launch, and sharing their findings with the other teams through the use of blogging. In this manner, we’ll begin to combine technical writing, project management, and even risk management with an addictive game centered around physics principles!
- I’m thinking their challenges may look something like:
- Launch an unmanned rocket
- Launch a manned rocket safety
- Safely put a Kerbal in orbit (and bring him home)
- Safely land a Kerbal on the Mun (and bring him home)
- Safely land a Kerbal on a distant planet (and bring him home)
In just playing with the sim for a few minutes tonight, I managed to put a Kerbal in orbit, but them promptly left him there as I played around with an extra-vehicular activity walk… and then couldn’t bring him back in as my command pod was out of fuel. Should be a hoot to see how the kids do, and if anyone else has played with the sim, wants to join us in our “experiment,” etc., we’d love to work with others!
As you may have noticed, progress on the AP-1 / AP-2 videos has stalled over the past few weeks… let’s just sum it up by saying that if it could have gone wrong, it did. First we had a database “miscue” with our previous web server host, in which we lost the better part of 9 months of posts from this blog. grrrrr. Then a stomach bug went through our house. And as I had all sorts of time to grumble over the increasingly poor response times of our site and the loss of the data (despite regular backups), I finally made the decision to switch hosts and get us our own virtual private server.
What does all that mean, you may ask? First off, instead of sharing a bunch of computing resource power with hundreds of other websites, we’ve purchased a set amount of storage space, RAM, and CPU cores on a server that only services a couple web sites. Lots more resources devoted to our site means much more stable performance, and considerably improved loading speeds. It also adds a bit of complexity on my side, as well as a considerable increase in annual costs. I’m thinking about potential ways to offset that in the future, but in the meantime, I’m thrilled to have the site up and running the way it should be.
Along with the server upgrade, we had quite a bit of “migrating” of programs, settings, and data to do. MOST of it went smoothly. One program, however, did NOT like the change at all, our Forums/Blogs software. I was already somewhat frustrated with the support and performance of our old system, so after a few days of beating my head against the wall (and getting mighty fired up at the technical support line), I bit the bullet and upgraded our system to the “Cadillac” of forum and blogging software. This, also, took a bit of time to setup, and because we’d already invested so much in all the student posts and work, I was able to hire an expert to assist in migrating all the data we could (what hadn’t been nutzed up by the previous software) into the new system. And he was gracious enough to give us a great price with amazing service due to the nature of our site (Thank you so much!!!).
To help differentiate the old software from the new, and highlight some of the features of the new software, I’ve renamed the “Discussion” area on APlusPhysics “Community,” because really that’s what we’re trying to build. Not only do we now have forums (with some cool new features), and blogs (which even more cool new features), we also have a file repository where we can share electronic documents and programs with each other, we have an online chat system, we have tremendously improved calendars, the ability to better integrate “blocks” of content across the entire site, the ability to create custom pages (such as featured posts, highlighted material, etc. — I’ll turn this part on soon), the ability to incorporate e-books with direct downloads right from the site (instantaneous help!), even the ability to let members promote their good works to others across the entire site. Quite a few of these options I’ll be working on over the coming months, but as of today we have at least as much functionality as the old site, a much prettier graphic interface, and a fast, responsive, reliable site with a support team I have much more confidence in.
So what’s next? Well, my first priority is finishing the “skin” of the system. It’s almost there. By the way, did you know you can adjust the color scheme of the site? See that little rainbow grid in the upper right of the community? Click on it and choose your color — whatever mood you’re in, the system can handle!
Next, I have some behind-the-scenes work to do to tweak what shows up on the various pages… upcoming calendar events, latest files, users online, etc. They work currently, but I’d like to make their integration just a little more smooth. Nothing major, just have a bit of reading to do.
Third, I’ve had quite a few requests to take my Powerpoint slides from the video series and make them available for teachers to use. This may be a bit more involved, as there are some licensing restrictions I’m working with the appropriate parties on, but I’m hopeful we can get something worked out in the not-too-distant future.
Fourth, I’d like to get the featured content / topic pages built out. This will be an ongoing “as time allows” effort. This new system has tremendous potential to pull and organize information from a wide variety of sources, the question is “am I smart enough to make it work?” I’m hoping the answer is yes.
Fifth, I’d really like to work to promote the downloads section as an area where we as physics instructors can share the best of what we put together for our students. There are both public and educator-only folders, and I think this has tremendous potential to be a great resource for us all, but I’m betting there will be quite a bit of legwork to “sell” this concept to other physics teachers across the world, so that it becomes not just a place for folks to download my work, but a place where we can all collaborate and share with each other. In this, I definitely need your help. If you would, take a minute or two and find one original lesson, worksheet, lab, hands-on activity, whatever… upload it to the “Downloads” section and share it with the rest of us. Can you imagine what a wonderful resource we’d have if each physics teacher shared just one or two amazing activities? Imagine if we then started building off of those… then again and again… we’d have the greatest teaching resource of any discipline (and we’re already well on our way!)
Sixth, work hasn’t stopped on the physics videos. I have to admit I’m a touch burnt out after finish the AP Physics C series this year (both Mechanics and E&M), and completing an entire AP-1 / AP-2 sequence for Educator.com (which is currently branded as AP-B but was set up with the new courses in mind). I’m continuing to plug away on the optics section of AP-B, and have a few more pieces to fill in. Once I get through this week my hope is to complete at least one more video per week for the foreseeable future.
Last, but not least — I’ve spent the past year doing pre-work for an AP-1 / AP-2 guide book for students (in the vein of Honors Physics Essentials, but specifically directed toward AP-1 / AP-2). As we get to the end of the school year, I want to focus on the BIC (butt in chair) strategy to get a first draft underway. I have tons of notes, outlines, and materials, and from past experience once you get rolling it’s not so bad, but I need to take those first few steps. I just want to make sure I have all my other “gotta get done’s” out of the way before I dive headfirst into this one for the summer.
Thanks for all your support, and I look forward to seeing you on the new APlusPhysics Community (by the way, if you haven’t tried it out yet, we’d love to see you! Shoot me an e-mail if you’re a professional physics instructor and I’ll get your access upgraded so you can see into the “teacher-only” parts of the site as well)!