Free Online Science Game
Lifeboat to Mars is a simulation game that kids play while connected to the Internet. The game was produced by Red Hill Studios for PBS Kids Go with support by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Once you register by creating an online persona (which is not your real name) and a password, you join Ort, a robot on a spaceship mission to Mars. Unfortunately, an explosion has wiped out part of your cargo of microbes, plants, and animals. Your mission is to help rebuild the on-board ecosystems before you reach Mars.
Two Simulation Games to Explore
To accomplish this mission, you will need to play two kinds of simulations: one set in a microscopic world called Microbe Games and the other in an ecosystem with animals and plants called Ecoland Games. To familiarize you with how to play both of these simulations, the game has you go through two sets of "Starter" games, which act as the game's tutorials.
Once you finish each set of starter games, other more difficult games become available. In this manner, Lifeboat to Mars very cleverly leads kids through progressively more difficult material, which builds on the lessons learned in the starter games.
For example, in the Ecoland Starter Games, you will be asked to figure out which two plants grow best in wet moist soil. You will be given several plants to try, but some will simply die because the soil is too wet. Likewise, in the Microbe Starter Games, you will be asked to direct a microbe through a tank to a Finish point. But there is no food in this water, just pockets of light. You will learn to add chloroplasts to your microbe so that it can make its own food from photosynthesis by stopping in the patches of light.
Later on in the harder games, you will use what you learned about plants, to help set up an ecosystem that can support both herbivores and, later, carnivores. And when playing the harder Microbe games, you will utilize your knowledge of chloroplasts to race through more crowded microscopic environments.
Create Your Own Sim to Share
Another exciting aspect of Lifeboat to Mars is the ability to create your own simulations to share with others. After working through the starter games and playing a few of the other more sophisticated scenarios, a new area opens up called "Modding." In the Modding sections for both Microbes and Ecoland, you can design your own scenarios. You can establish the goal of the scenario, and how hard it is to win. After you finish creating a mod and test it out by winning it, your mod is then uploaded to the game's servers for others to play.
In addition to the 48 simulations, the game also has a culminating Lifeboat simulation game. By playing the earlier simulations, you earn points to help you complete the Lifeboat simulation. In all, Lifeboat to Mars offers kids hours of fascinating, interactive learning.
What makes this free online game so good is that it lets kids learn by trial and error. Each simulation sets forth clear learning objectives and goals, and then provides the means to accomplish the goals. The key to making a good simulation for kids is to find the balance between making the achievement too easy and making it too hard. For the most part, Lifeboat to Mars finds that sweet spot; however, several of the simulations will take several tries before success is achieved. This is particularly true with the Microbe games where kids' success is hampered by rather rudimentary controls of using the arrow keys to move your microbe.
For teachers wanting to incorporate this game into their science curriculum, a teacher's guide will be available on the PBS Kids Go website.
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