Kerbal space and pixels combine to educate at Denver Comic Con

Children watch as the rocket they launched crashes and burns on reentry. As part of their exhibition, Kerbal Space Academy programmed several scenarios into the game, which participants could then try their hand at. Photos by Esteban Fernandez

Liam Kleinberg sends rockets into space. His mother, Tamara, stands behind him and watches. The little green men that crew Liam’s rocket cheered as the ship reached a safe orbit. However, not all launches have a happy ending.

“So, on my first joint, I’m looking to make a one stage engine rocket go up. I’m scrolling through and I don’t see the parachute,” he said. “There’s only one other way I can think of landing it.”

Firing the engine, Liam tried a powered descent. But instead of a safe landing, he watched helplessly as the lone green crewman plunged to his death. Now, Liam always packs a parachute.

Liam doesn’t actually launch rockets into space. He was one of several kids who played a game called “Kerbal Space Program”. The game was the main attraction at an exhibit named the Kerbal Space Academy, one of the exhibitions at the 2017 Denver Comic Con.

KSA is a show produced by John Galloway, also known as DasValdez on video game streaming site Twitch.tv. KSP is at the center of what KSA does. The main goal of the game is to launch rockets into space and explore a simulated solar system. However, unlike other video game streams on the website, KSA’s mission is also educational.

“Our mission, our charter is to help people understand the basics of rocket science that they can use in the game to succeed in the game,” Galloway said. “That’s what the concept of Kerbal Space Academy is.”

What makes KSP unique is the realistic portrayal of space travel that lies beneath the game’s cartoonish style. However, the game does have a steep learning curve. That can frustrate people who have no grounding in physics or rocket science. KSA gives people who want to play the game the tools they need to understand the physics behind the game.

Each show Galloway does explores different concepts. Thrust to weight ratio, payload ratio and orbital mechanics are some of the topics covered. The show itself has around 50,000 followers total. Viewership can fluctuate from 200 viewers to 5,000 depending on the subject matter. And the show is growing as well. Galloway branched out from only streaming the game. He now broadcasts live from NASA and SpaceX launches and has also done shows from the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. Galloway’s show has even brought him to Colorado outside of Comic Con. He’s visited the headquarters of the United Launch Alliance, located in Centennial.

Children watch as the rocket they launched crashes and burns on reentry. As part of their exhibition, Kerbal Space Academy programmed several scenarios into the game, which participants could then try their hand at.

KSA started coming to DCC three years ago. Galloway said that DCC’s parent organization, Pop Culture Classroom, had a mission that fit very well with the goals that Galloway himself has for KSA. The exhibit itself was composed of three different stations that ran the game. Kids of all ages , including your correspondent, were drawn to the exhibit by the colorful visuals. Acting as guides, volunteers chaperoned each station.

Volunteer Koa Halpern said that the game is successful because it’s a simulation dressed up as a game.

The exhibit emphasized the education aspect of the game. Galloway used the game to teach his daughter real world skills like organizing and critical thinking. As his daughter got older, he was able to move onto more complicated math and physics concepts.

“When she got into fourth, fifth grade, when she was practicing division we would calculate payload mass for our rockets,” Galloway said. “And that’s basically the mass of what goes to space divided by the entire mass of the rocket.”

Watching the kids play and learn space science is one of the joys that Breann Wasson gets from volunteering her time with Galloway. Wasson, a graphic designer, traveled from Detroit to volunteer for Galloway. She also designed the logos and banners that FSA uses. She also said that the game drew in girls as well as boys. At the Intrepid museum she watched one girl pick up the game and land a rocket by herself without any help.

Speaking about Twitch.tv, Wasson said, “As far as Das’s channel goes, I’ve been pretty surprised to see how many — Twitch is pretty male dominated anyway, but when it comes to his channel it’s well represented.”

For Galloway, most video games can be turned into a learning experience. What matters is the parent’s role.

“Video games can be very educational can be very healthy for your kids to play — in moderation, not 20 hours a day or whatever — especially when as a parent you sit down and you participate with them.”

The final word on what a child can or can’t do always goes to the parent. Both of Tamara Kleinberg’s sons, Liam included, love space and play video games. However, she forbids them from having a game console at home. KSP is different though. She makes an exception for it because in her eyes it teaches science and instills a love of exploration in her kids. To parents who may have second thoughts about allowing KSP into their home, she argues that KSP is about setting a goal and then combining science and mathematics to achieve that goal.

“It’s real, you’re not fighting zombies. You’re going to space,” she said.

John Galloway explains what Kerbal Space program is to an interested child. His third year at Denver Comic Con, Galloway travels across the country with his show. He publicizes the game and popularizes science and engineering wherever he goes.

Author: Esteban Fernandez

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