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Master the universe, kids!

Although NASA hasn’t introduced a way to send kids into space yet, there are plenty of research and development projects that are leaving the labs and landing in schoolrooms.

Although NASA hasn’t introduced a way to send kids into space yet, there are plenty of research and development projects that are leaving the labs and landing in schoolrooms. One example is Astronomicon, a software application that makes kids into the masters of their own universes. The application is being developed by Cybernet Systems Corporation, an Ann Arbor research and development company that specializes in turning research into commercial applications. The company’s vice president, Charles Cohen, chats about how they’ve created a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy that children can use to navigate among the planets.

Why are you developing Astronomicon?

Let’s say you’re a student, and you want to know what an eclipse is. You could look it up, and you’d get the answer to some degree, and get a mental image of the moon going in front of the sun. But you might not have the full grasp of the mechanics of it. A good student can repeat what they’ve learned, but a great student will really understand it. Astronomicon allows students to be great, because they can really understand how things work in the universe.

The application also lets them clear up misperceptions. For example, if you were in an asteroid belt, and sitting on an asteroid, you might think that you’d look around and see plenty of other asteroids, like in the movies. But they’re an astronomical unit away from each other. You’d see a tiny speck in the distance, and that would be the nearest other asteroid. That’s the kind of thing that can only be understood if you’re shown, not if you’re just reading about it.

How does the application work?

It provides hands-on modeling so kids can play around with the elements. For an eclipse, for example, they can tilt the moon at certain number of degrees from the earth and see what happens. Basically, they can manipulate a universe and change its mechanics. They can make planets go crashing into each other if they want, and some kids do, but most of the time they’re just fascinated with changing certain parts of a universe and watching what happens.

Is the application geared toward a certain age level, or a specific grade?

Actually, it can be customized for different levels. We’ve been testing it with 5th to 7th graders. It’s a software system that can be used on regular desktop PCs, but it can also be networked so they can use it home. They can also quiz each other, or take individual quizzes, and the teacher can review them from her desk or from home.

What kind of reaction are you getting from students and teachers as you bring it through the testing phase?

Everyone seems to really like it. It’s like playing a computer game for the kids, except they learn something. The teachers seem to appreciate that it’s not trying to be a game made for the Xbox, but that it’s an educational tool that engages kids and makes them interested in learning.

Why did you decide to create a system like this?

Cybernet did some work with the Department of Defense, and for NASA, doing a project that involved simulation of the earth and spacecraft. Ken Hay at the University of Georgia found out about the project and realized that it may be good for schools, so he’s doing a lot with taking our networking system and creating a product for students. The educational method is his.

What kinds of challenges are you discovering in bringing this from NASA to 5th graders?

I’m an engineer, so I tend to look at it from that point of view, making sure it never crashes and trying to make it intuitive and easy for students to use so they can get their ideas across. It’s difficult sometimes to make it open-ended enough, but it’s important. If students want to put an asteroid belt near Earth’s orbit, they should be able to do that, because you don’t want to limit them in what they want to do. It lets them think more creatively. That’s been a very big challenge.

The other challenge is in marketing. It’s always difficult to launch a new product. We’re looking at licensing options, and also getting some sort of collaboration with astronomy textbooks. Right now it’s all in beta. What I’d love is for more teachers to call us and do a beta test. The price right now is really inexpensive, and it’s easy for any school to afford to just try it out. We’ve priced it really low for now so that we can get more feedback.

The only other really big challenge was to tackle the networking aspect, but we’ve done a lot of work with government, and with gaming, so we had some experience in dealing with that.

What kinds of projects have you done, outside of Astronomicon?

We developed tabletop simulators for the government, to teach procedural aspects of flying to pilots. That was ten years ago, and we’ve been helping the technology to advance from there. We also do a lot in the gaming world, especially with networking. There are some game companies that license our network architecture for multiplayer versions.

What kind of differences do you find in creating simulations for pilots, as opposed to creating them for gamers?

With the government, it’s funny, because they kind of expect things to fail. They don’t care as much if a simulation isn’t in real time, or if there’s a delay. But in the computer game world, it can’t fail, you can’t have crashes. It needs to be in real time and as fast as possible. In some ways, that’s exactly what the government wants, but it’s just hard for them to get it. I think the gaming world is changing expectations for everyone–for students, the government, everyone. I think the next pilots will be gamers.

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