January 18, 2008

Space For The Next Generation

For centuries mankind has been fascinated by outer space and the promises and dangers that it might hold. This all seemed to culminate during the Space Race between the USSR and the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s. In the span of twelve years, mankind went from launching the first man-made satellite into orbit to walking on the moon, and the entire world was captivated.

My parents' generation grew up during this time, and I'm sure many of them (like my dad) passed on their passion for all things related to outer space to their children. For me, it started when my dad introduced me to the original Star Wars and later to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Granted, this movie and this television series were fiction, but they were born out of a generation of people who grew up during the Space Race. Watching these shows got me hooked on the idea of exploring outer space and other planets, and this desire still burns in me to this day.

My love for outer space reached its peak sometime in middle school, when my class took a field trip to the Discovery Place, a science museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. At the time, they had a NASA Space Mission exhibit for classes to attend. Before you went to the museum, your teacher decided which of three teams you were going to be on: Mission Control Team, Shuttle Flight Team, or Probe Team. Most of the class fought over who got to be on the Shuttle Flight Team, but I went straight for the Probe Team, as this combined my love of outer space with my love of all things electronic. During your time in the exhibit, you had manuals to follow, and things went a bit like this:

  1. Mission Control and Shuttle Team prepare shuttle for flight.

  2. Shuttle team launches shuttle and enters orbit around earth.

  3. Probe team assembles and launches deep space probe for scientific research.

  4. Probe team takes readings from probe and records data.

  5. Shuttle Team and Mission Control work together to land the shuttle.

I'm sure the equivalent of this exhibit with today's technology would be absolutely amazing (what they have at Space Camp sounds similar), but even back then it was more than enough to capture the attention and awe of my 5th grade mind. It was probably one of the single greatest educational experiences of my life, not because of any specific facts I learned, but because the little things that I did pick up instilled in me the desire to learn more. I think that if something does that, whether intentionally or not, you can consider it an educational success.

But our country's fascination with space seems to be dwindling. Science fiction shows used to be prevalent on prime-time television, but now the only thing that is a remote success is Battlestar Galactica. It's almost as if people feel like since we've gone to the moon that there's nothing left to do, and I find this very disheartening.

I don't think all hope is lost, though. Space exploration is still a big theme in modern video games. Mass Effect, for instance, is a recent release that has been a resounding success, both critically and commercially. While this may all be good to keep kids (and adults) interested, does it really spark any desire to learn?

There may be something to answer that question in the next few years. NASA is seeking information from the software community about producing a massively multiplayer online learning game based around the exploration of outer space. I'm sure the word "learning" in that description would immediately turn off some kids, but if the game is actually fun, then learning just becomes an awesome side-effect of playing the game. Much like the experience I had as a kid, they wouldn't even know that they're learning, and their curiosity may just be piqued enough for them to do some more exploring on their own.

I would love to see this project succeed, as it combines my love of outer space, computers, and video games all into one package. I would even purchase it myself if it was well-received. Whether this particular endeavor succeeds or not, I do hope that my generation does it's best to keep the next generation looking to the stars. Whether it happens soon or not, the future of the human race does lie out there in that vast expanse. I just hope we don't forget and put it off until it's too late.

No comments: