Captain’s log: Stardate 45176.38
I’ve received my latest assignment from Fleet High Command. The high admiral wants me to take on a group of cadets and teach them about the stars. It’s a means of prepping them for a future with the Fleet and inspiring them to always aim for the seemingly unreachable and unknown— because you never know what you might discover, and it might be something incredible…
Last year’s astronomy program at the library wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t exactly a rousing success, either. I had designed it to be a smaller, simpler version of the Star Talks I used to do at the university as a lab assistant. It was all of the hands-on stuff: how to calibrate a telescope, find a star, use a star chart, locate the ecliptic, etc. But kids don’t like to be talked at for half an hour. When it comes to bringing astronomy to kids, they want what’s basic to them: rocket ships and images of planets, burning stars, colorful nebulae, and swirling galaxies. They’re not going to remember that the celestial equator is at a right angle with the celestial pole, or that the imaginary line in the sky where you find the other things in our system’s plane is called the ecliptic. They will, however, remember that Mars is red, Mercury is the smallest planet in our system, asteroids are flying potatoes in space, and, if we’re lucky, the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy. They want to be able to look up at the sky one night and be able to say to their parent, “That’s Saturn! The rings are made of tiny bits of crushed space rocks!”
I scrapped everything I’d used on the rooftops of UC Davis and started from scratch. For starters, the light pollution around the library was too great and made stargazing nearly impossible. That left me with “basic instruction” and a huge, gaping hole to fill up with “something fun.” And “basic instruction” also couldn’t just be me talking at kids for the first twenty minutes.
The idea of a grand space adventure hit me while I was in the shower one morning. I was reminiscing about the unit on space I did in 3rd grade to help me create something more kid-friendly . My teacher, Mrs. Krause, had spent the better part of two months teaching us about the planets in our solar system. Then, for our grand finale, she “transformed” the classroom into a rocket ship that allowed us to tour the solar system for ourselves with the help of the overhead projector. And we ate space ice cream afterwards.
At the mention of “turning the room into a spaceship,” the parts of my brain that thrive on Star Trek and Mass Effect suddenly came to life and piped up, which then kicked the Dungeons & Dragons bit of my brain into gear, too.
Let’s give them a near-realistic situation to be a part of, my inner dungeon master said. After all, what kid doesn’t like to play pretend?
Kids love to be engaged, to be a part of what they’re learning about. They like to be something other than “just a kid” for a while; it’s liberating. Why learn as another faceless, inconsequential kid in the crowd when you can be a space cadet aboard a spaceship? That’s what made the science unit from 3rd grade stick so well in my mind, even after all these years. Thanks to advancements in presentation tech, I have Powerpoint and the branch media projector at my disposal.
But learning gets better when the kids aren’t even aware of it because it looks like, feels like, and sounds like a game.
Let’s introduce some risk, an enemy they can unite against and fight off, my inner Shepard/Picard said excitedly. After all, what kid doesn’t like to be the hero?
If you play video games because you get a kick out of taking down enormous monsters and emerge victorious as “protector of the realm,” raise your hand and say, “Aye!” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. Whether the cape you’re tying around your shoulders is linen or nylon, being the hero is thrilling and exciting.
Commander Shepard had the Reapers. The Doctor had the Daleks. Captain Picard had the Borg. Creating the enemy for Astro Academy was more complex and delicate than you’d guess. It had to be scary and big enough for the kids to take seriously. On the other hand, I didn’t want to make it too scary or too big that the kids are scared out of their minds. One thing sci-fi nemeses all have in common is their desire to take over the galaxy. But how would this enemy try to take over the galaxy? Introduce lasers and weapons, you might have parents crying foul: “Too much violence for our kids!”
Enter the Brain Eaters: a race of super advanced, extra-galactic aliens who go from galaxy to galaxy, conquering everything they see unless the galaxy’s citizens can fight them off with an impressive show of knowledge.
I essentially took the old saying, “Knowledge is power,” and applied it in the cheesiest way possible. It eliminated the need for advanced weaponry, suggested conflict resolution via non-violence, and had the right amount of menace to give the kids something to think about (no pun intended). And it also presented the solution to the “something fun” gap I’d been struggling to fill: the second half of the program would be an interactive quiz with straightforward reactions for right and wrong answers. Our alien menace will give us questions and we answer them to win or lose “battles.”
So, there was the foundations of the program, but it was still lacking a particular spark to make it breathe and live. The first half of the program was in danger of being boring and repetitive, even with the “travel” slides. I was watching “Sesame Street” with my daughter one afternoon, turning this dilemma over and over in my head, and this segment happened to come on:
Duh! Every good interactive educational adventure included audience participation throughout the program, not just the end. This became the springboard for a set of three “actions” that the kids could do at designated cues sprinkled throughout the adventure.
– “Engage!”: Point with one arm and declare, “Make it so!” a la Captain Picard. It would be used every time we “traveled” to a new destination and the “ENGAGE” button popped up on the viewscreen of our “ship.”
– Evasive Measures: Another element borrowed from Star Trek where the kids would pretend to rock with the ship whenever we have to make a bold escape from the enemy or avoid asteroids.
– Rallying Cry: No space adventure would be complete without some sort of inspirational speech or battle cry. It’s campy and rightfully so. Every time I ask the kids, “Can we do it?” the reply is, “Yes, ma’am! Yes we can!”
With these three tools in my arsenal, constructing the Powerpoint became almost easy. The journey constructed itself. It made up its own moments of excitement and tension based on very real dangers, like passing through the asteroid belt or being too close to the sun, making our shields fail. Creating a non-Jeopardy quiz from Powerpoint, however, was a little trickier. I had to make preserve slideshow order but introduce skipping around in as if it was built in. At the end, I created buttons for every quiz slide to make going back and forth between quiz questions and consequence slides easier.
The content was generated, which was a huge relief. There was a skeletal outline— made so to remain flexible and adaptable— and script in place to help keep the illusion in place. I could focus on the creative stuff like the art assets. The background I created for the Powerpoint was easy enough with the help of GIMP. My logo, however, was trickier. I didn’t have a drawing tablet at my disposal at the time, and the mouse just doesn’t quite cut it.
When I imagined the logo for Astro Academy, the A was something I wanted to preserve, no matter what. The final design was a combination of the Starfleet logo from Star Trek and the Systems Alliance logo from Mass Effect. I also wanted to have the logo convey a sense of exploration, that Astro Academy was a gateway to astronomical knowledge. That’s where elements of the Arch in St. Louis come in.
After a fair bit of research and many concept doodles later, the above image was born. Thanks again to the tech available to me at work and home, I scanned in my inked drawing and used GIMP to clean it up, give it some color, and make it polished.
I borrowed the idea of giving away “badges” as prizes from our May the Fourth Star Wars party. The library has a button maker; all it required was my own creativity and smarts. Each kid would receive an official Astro Academy badge with the logo and the rank of “Cadet” emblazoned at the bottom at the end of the program.
Why? Because kids love getting stuff: stickers that say “training wings” from the pilot, plastic firefighter hats, stick-on police shields. A button that says, “Astro Academy, Cadet” is simple, but shiny enough to make a kid happy. It also neatly wraps up the whole role-playing scenario of attending a paramilitary “academy” associated with a futuristic interstellar fleet or navy and makes the experience complete.
My coworker, who became Commander Amanda, took care of the graphics to help turn the facade of the meeting room into our ship’s docking bay. She made official-looking signs and helped with other visual aspects, as well as become my impromptu sound engineer during the program.
Like any good DM, I came up with all sorts of little details to help flesh out the scenario in my mind. For example, I dubbed our “space cruiser” Antioch in the tradition of naming ships for famous cities and battle sites— and the city in California where I spent the first several years of my life. I even drew it out, gave it a ship designation and specs.
I had never worked on anything of this magnitude. Even for something that was, seemingly, so simple, there were more elements involved than I’d initially imagined. (Admiral) Anna, the children’s librarian I worked with to develop the program, knew how kids ticked and what would turn their brains on, or what would shut them down, and helped me immensely. I’ve lost track of how many people I pinged at sounding boards for ideas. Luckily, unlike a video game production, everything I conceptualized and developed for the program went into the “live” version; nothing was left behind or unused.
Since there was so much work and time put into the research, art assets, graphics, and finagling with Powerpoint, I’m trying to come up with different versions of Astro Academy for each year to keep content fresh, but to reuse what I’ve already created. Until that time comes, however, it’s time for this captain, her crew, and her ship to get some much-needed R&R (that’s “rest and recreation” to you civvies out there).
Captain Tori out.