Building worlds and learning astronomy on Facebook

James Harold, Space Science Institute, USA

The Space Science Institute has spent two decades producing traveling science exhibitions, first as purely museum experiences, then with varying degrees of online connectivity and augmentation. This current project moves entirely in to the online realm: an end-to-end stellar and planetary evolution game to be launched first on Facebook, then externally for access by middle school students. Supported by NSF and NASA, the game uses the “sporadic play” model of games such as Farmville, where players might only take actions a few times a day, but continue playing for months. This framework is an excellent fit for teaching about the evolution of stars and planets, since it allows us to naturally embed a wealth of time scale based content. Players select regions of the galaxy to build their stars and planets, and watch as the systems evolve in scaled real time (a million years to the minute). Massive stars will supernova within minutes, while lower mass stars like our sun will live for weeks, possibly evolving life before passing through a red giant stage and ending their lives as white dwarfs.

In addition to providing a central hub for players to explore a variety of astronomy concepts (stellar lifecycles, habitable zones, the roles of giant worlds in creating habitable solar systems), the game can also tie to supporting content through NASA sites, our own exhibit sites, forums, etc. Meanwhile, it provides the player with repeated exposure to content in a way that is generally not practical in a physical exhibit space.

This presentation will focus on the current state of the project as well as its overall goals, which include reaching a broad audience with basic astronomy concepts as well as current science results; exploring the potential of social, “sporadic play” games in education; and determining if platforms such as Facebook allow us to reach significantly different demographics than are generally targeted by educational games or science center exhibits.

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