Case study of the Space Academy in Bucharest, Romania

Making rockets and learning about space in Space Academy

Developed around the concept of a ‘Space Academy’, the Romanian team project involved creating rockets, with which children could explore ‘space’. They were able to create them physically, using various materials (paper, crayons, scissors, glue, pearl beads and 3D doodlers) or virtually, inside the Kerbal Space program (a computer game where, after creating/assembling a rocket, you can launch it into space). In addition, the children were challenged to create stories which should integrate the rockets they had been drawing or creating, stories they could record on the cameras available.

Although a physical/material to virtual sequence was favoured, they could always alternate the in-game creation with hands-on activities, as the materials they needed were available to them throughout the workshop. Each time they deemed it necessary, the facilitators introduced concepts or theoretical knowledge to children via video content, such as the NASA YouTube channel and other sources.

The purpose of the project was to familiarise children to engineering (understanding the main elements of the construction of a rocket) and science (understanding some of the physics’ laws, such as gravity, acceleration/deceleration, orbit, friction) in a way that would combine theoretical understanding, designing and practical making. Also, we aimed to help integrate some abilities most children already have (such as, playing video games, drawing and creating things) within learning activities, through making.

The project involved a multi-level approach to creativity:

  1. Physical, material creation (2D or 3D), through the shapes, colours and the structures children used, and by embedding the objects in a landscape.

  2. At the narrative level, where the object they created was integrated into a story which was then filmed.

  3. At the KSP rocket level, where their creativity was challenged by the functionality of their own creations (thus, understanding the real design constraints an engineer faces).

The same concept has been applied to the three groups of 10 children, six to eight years old, from three different schools in Bucharest (a private one and two public schools), in an attempt to test the versatility of the project and how it responds or how it fits to children’ various experiences and interests. For each group of children, there were at least seven sessions, with George and Vlad Marusteru from Hatch Atelier as facilitators and Anca Velicu and Monica Mitarc as researchers, from the Institute of Sociology.

In their first session, children were presented with real launch missions, from NASA’s YouTube channel, and were prompted to draw a rocket themselves, integrate it into a story and then present it in front of a colleague, who would play the role of a reporter/cameraman and record it. The purpose, at this level, was to integrate the knowledge from real life into the creative imaginary, to understand the practical utility of science and to help them express themselves and work in teams (figure 1).

Child using a laptop

Figure 1. Looking for the best pod that would accommodate three Kerbals (the people that live on Kerbal, an Earth-like planet that is the world of the game).

The next step was to initiate children into the use of the Kerbal Space Program, where they were given a first, simple mission of creating a minimalistic rocket that should contain a command pod, a fuel tank, an engine and a parachute and were asked to launch it. The elements were predefined, having to be assembled in the correct order. Initially, children were not able to choose many models of the same element (such as different types of motors or different types of fuels, connecting elements, joints, engines, and so on); these options came out later on. The program familiarised children with launching stages and conveyed to them that straying from it leads to a failed mission and the explosion of the rocket.

In the next sessions, children were offered other materials (plasticine, beads, 3D doodlers) with which they could create rockets or other objects to include in their stories (for example planets, see figure 2). At the level of the computer game, children had many options with respect to the various components of the rocket (they could choose between many types of command pods, engines, wings, balancing items), leading to various possibilities of creating more and more complex rockets, allowing them to fly longer and, thus, enter the orbit of the planet.

Children's drawings of planets and space

Figure 2. Various elements drawn or made by plastic (with beads or with 3D doodler) that entered into their stories about planets.

What did children learn from this work, and how did they appropriate the new knowledge?

The project proved to be very versatile indeed, as the children had various degrees of knowledge, experiences and interest, and were each able to access the activities and find their own point of challenge.

For instance, at the private school and at the better-situated public school, some of the boys in the group were very much into the video game culture. For them, the project was clearly an extension of their previous interest and skills. Thus, after having quickly created their initial rocket and launched it, they started to explore the menu of the game and the choices it offered. Sometimes, they did it incorrectly on purpose, just to enjoy its explosion or view the way its trajectory is altered if you launch the parachute, which will act as a brake when the rocket is at full speed.

They discovered that the game was allowing them to create planes also, not only rockets and, despite the facilitators’ reluctance, children persevered (while some even succeeded) to see how the planes could have been launched. Furthermore, they discovered they could take the pilot out of the rocket and ”walk” him/her on the soil of the planet on which they had landed. For these kids with a sort of arborescent understanding of the game’s menu, exploration was not a problem, as they knew all the time how to come back – either step by step, or by accessing a “home” type of button, in the main menu. In this case, we are talking about a gaming type of approach, by trial and error.

Other children – among them, especially some of the girls – had a different approach. Not keen players, they followed step-by-step the facilitators’ instructions, sometimes leading to better performances when compared to the ‘old players’ (in two of the schools, it was the girls who managed to hit the orbits first, with their rockets). It’s noteworthy that those girls who understood what it took to complete the task were also keen to show their colleagues how to play the game, and to help them out.

Girl playing a computer game

Figure 3. Girl playing KSP.

One of the girls even tried to scribble some notes for her friend which could explain to her the steps to be made, referring to easily identifiable elements for children – and less intuitive for adults (for example, “when the arrow gets to the letter X (within a word), the next stage is released”). The adult facilitators used the increase and decrease of speed as an indicator for going to another stage; see also figure 3). In this case, we are talking about a ‘recipe’ approach, with a step-by-step understanding of the process. Although not a creative one, this approach gives self-confidence to children and, in time, can lead to knowledge acquisition. It is important as initiation.

“Look, I will press ‘S’ key once, I’ll get here”, explained a boy to one of the researchers, translating his knowledge about the stages of the launch in words that were intuitive and meaningful for him (see figure 4). The ‘S’ key represented a new stage of the launch and, in this case, it was about opening the parachutes (he linked three parachutes to his rocket, just to be sure it would not explode when landing).

A childing pointing at a laptop screen

Figure 4. Pointing to the screen.

For the children in a very poor area, the project represented an opening to a world relatively inaccessible until then. Unlike the children in the private school, who were clearly watching documentaries about science, space and astronomy alongside their parents, the ones in the disadvantaged area were seeing rockets (other than in fiction movies) for the first time and it was also for the first time that they understood the concept of a space mission, how going on orbit happened, and so on. One of the boys even asked about the preparation it takes to become an astronaut, and if they could ever get to be astronauts themselves.

The process of discovering the equipment they had at their disposal and using it also differed from one school to another. Having video and photo cameras available was fascinating for all the children, but while they were attracted to the big, professional-looking cameras, the children from the more disadvantaged areas, who were less restricted by their parents in their online activities and were familiarised with vlog/vloggers, were more attracted by the Go-Pro and the smartphone cameras, which they recognized as vlogging tools.

Many scientific notions and concepts were acquired and learned, and subsequently used correctly in the explanations children were asking or giving during playing the game (gravity, friction, atmosphere, space).

There was always room to improve in such projects. We tried to offer children the freedom to migrate between the various work stations and to choose the materials with which to make their creations. We wanted to see how children approached different materials/materiality and how this triggered their imagination, via specific constraints and opportunities. We also wanted to see if, once they learned about the engineering structure of a rocket, they would come back to their drawings and try to incorporate the new knowledge, or try to make 3D models to incorporate it. We did not witness such incorporation of the new knowledge in the physical, material objects they created occurring spontaneously. A much more structured/guided process (by the facilitator) would have been necessary to ensure that.

We would recommend this approach with gamification elements incorporated. A common objective or narrative would help in such a project more than an individualistic approach, which was the one that we used when emulating a model of the makerspace as a self-driven interest (specific to the adults) and not as an educational makerspace that involved more guidance and structured activities. Despite the drawbacks that we list here in an attempt to improve the concept, the project was a real success for the children, and was a good introduction to STEAM, which helped them develop their self-confidence alongside their communication skills and abilities for self-expression.