Fast forward to 2035. Imagine being part of a community of astronauts living and working on the Moon. Suddenly, in the middle of just another day in space, a meteorite crashes into the surface of the Moon, threatening life as you know it. The support equipment that provides oxygen for the entire community has been compromised. What would you do?
While this situation is one that most people will never encounter, NASA hopes to place students in such situations—virtually—to inspire, engage, and educate about NASA technologies, job opportunities, and the future of space exploration. Specifically, NASA’s Learning Technologies program, part of the Agency’s Office of Education, aims to inspire and motivate students to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines through interactive technologies. The ultimate goal of these educational programs is to support the growth of a pool of qualified scientific and technical candidates for future careers at places like NASA. STEM education has been an area of concern in the United States; according to the results of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, 23 countries had higher average scores in mathematics literacy than the United States. On the science literacy scale, 18 countries had higher average scores.
“This is part of a much bigger picture of trying to grow skilled graduates for places like NASA that will want that technical expertise,” says Daniel Laughlin, the Learning Technologies project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center. “NASA is trying to increase the number of students going into those fields, and so are other government agencies.”
In 2004, Laughlin began researching the idea of a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) to attract young people and foster their interest in STEM subjects. Used as a formal or informal educational tool, an MMOG could help young people to grasp complex concepts in STEM areas and then transfer their understanding to practice. Because today’s generation of young people spend a large amount of time playing video games, the demographic is already familiar and comfortable with the technology. Laughlin thought an online game could be a successful method of exposure to STEM because virtual environments can provide scientifically-accurate simulations where players can experiment with chemical reactions, practice operating and repairing equipment, and even experience microgravity (virtually).
Laughlin explains, “A virtual space gives a sense of being in a shared space, like a real place. Our brains are geared to process the world in three dimensions and virtual worlds are built in three dimensions, so our brains jump to processing in the same way as in the real world. By creating a real, life-like space, it impacts like real life, and everything done there encodes in memories more firmly.” As an added benefit, MMOGs have been shown to enhance skills like strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, team-building and cooperation, and adaptation to rapid change.
In 2009, the Learning Technologies program, along with Goddard, Marshall Space Flight Center, and NASA Headquarters, combined efforts to provide funding for Army Game Studio, of Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, and Virtual Heroes of Applied Research Associates, in Raleigh, North Carolina, to develop an online 3D video adventure that uses NASA content—specifically, NASA lunar architecture plans—as the basis for an engaging, inspiring, and fun game. The result was Moonbase Alpha.