Using Videogames to Engage Students in Astronomy Lab

Nicole Gugliucci, assistant professor of astronomy at Saint Anselm College, shares her experience incorporating At Play in the Cosmos: The Videogame into her classroom.

I’m not at all what you would call a gamer. The most frequently used app on my phone is probably the one with crossword puzzles. Like a lot of millennials, when I was a kid I dabbled in Super Mario and did a few multiplayer rounds of 007 on the Nintendo 64, but that’s about it. 

Calculating the mass of Venus aboard my ship, the Rocinante.

However, when I heard there was a videogame for Astronomy 101, I was skeptical but also very curious. Most educational games I had tried up to that point had been kind of disappointing . . . more education and less actual gameplay. But this one looked like a REAL videogame. I could almost imagine myself back in the cockpit of Star Fox 64. (Okay, so maybe I played a few more games than I let on.) 

I could talk about astronomy all day, but over the past few years I’ve ditched the lecture-only model in favor of lecture tutorials in the classroom and simulations in the lab. My ideal astronomy lab involves bringing the students to our observatory to learn to use 8-inch telescopes. But I live in New England, so we’re lucky to get what few clear nights we can. All too frequently, we have to hold labs indoors instead. This videogame seemed like a perfect fit for those clouded-out times. 

At Play in the Cosmos includes a lot of interesting tools that fit my educational needs. You can simulate taking spectra of gas clouds, use Kepler’s laws to determine an object’s mass, and measure the luminosity of stars. These activities allow students to practice the concepts they’ve learned in class, and they already mesh quite well with my teaching style. One feature of my class is that it’s math-phobe friendly. I never want a fear of algebra to get in the way of students’ learning the scientific concepts. The game’s way of inserting measurements into the equation and doing the calculation for you allows me to show the math without having students stress about the process.  

I was excited to share this game with my students! But to use At Play in the Cosmos for the lab, I had to come up with a system for grading. I decided not to tie gameplay directly into grading. After all, though the gameplay is fun, it’s most important for me that students learn the science concepts covered in the game. So I’ve written a series of lab questions to go along with each mission. Open-ended questions ask students to elaborate on a measurement they made, such as why taking a spectrum from afar is useful when you want to conserve your spacecraft’s fuel.  

My students loved using At Play in the Cosmos in fall of 2019, when I first implemented the game in my Astro 101 labs. Then, in 2020, instructors had to learn how to deliver class content online. At Play in the Cosmos made the switch to online a lot smoother, since students could access the game on their computers. I’m currently teaching an asynchronous astronomy course, meaning that weekly assignments are posted and students work through them on their own time. It’s nice to know that I can set students up to do their missions, rather than worry about writing up a lab methodology that would minimize questions they’d have to ask in real time. Then I can grade their open-ended-question responses as I did before.  

Students who had little experience in gaming seemed a bit apprehensive at first, but playing through the first mission put them at ease. The controls are very straightforward, and you have your ship’s artificial intelligence, CORI, to cheerfully walk you through your new experience as a spaceship pilot. Students were pleased to successfully complete their tasks, such as identifying a particular element in a nebula using spectroscopy. At the very beginning of the course, we haven’t even touched upon spectroscopy. When we do get to it in class, however, students recognize it from what they’ve seen in the videogame, and that makes the theoretical discussion much more real. As they revisit the same tools in new situations, they become comfortable talking about spectroscopy and thinking about it as a scientific tool.   

The game had clearly made an impact on students who were not avid gamers, but I was particularly curious about what my gamer students thought of it. Most of them have been pleased as well! I suspect their previous experience with educational games has been as ho-hum as my own. I’d often see students who were more avid gamers talk their lab partners through some of the tougher tasks, like avoiding comet fragments. A couple of students even compared the gameplay to No Man’s Sky, a currently popular videogame where you, well, explore the universe in a spaceship. (Turns out, my husband plays that game, too!)

How did I write the labs? Of course, I had to play the game myself. As I did so, it was not unusual for my colleagues to hear cheers, yells, and grumbles coming from my office when I was working through the game for my labs. I found it most useful to play it through first, taking brief notes, then go through again more slowly, paying attention to the details of the script so I could home in on the topics that I wanted to emphasize. 

Teaching in a pandemic has brought about many hardships, uncertainties, and extra anxiety for students and instructors. It’s comforting to have at least one set of assignments that can provide a little bit of escapism while letting students practice with the concepts they are learning in astronomy. I may not be a true gamer, but I can appreciate the good feeling that comes with blasting apart a space rock and rescuing a planetary mining colony . . . even if it is in a virtual world.

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