I’ve previously discussed the importance of studying engineering, including the topic of fluid mechanics, within the homeschool environment. Now, I’m excited to discuss one of the absolute best tools for doing this: Oxygen Not Included, which I strongly recommend as one of the pillars of a high school engineering curriculum.
Oxygen Not Included is a brilliant video game in which the player guides a small group of colonists as they struggle to survive on an asteroid. Keeping the colonists alive requires careful management of the asteroid’s limited resources to produce breathable oxygen, grow food, manage waste, maintain a livable temperature, and conduct research.
A Physics Simulation At Heart
One of the remarkable things about Oxygen Not Included is that it includes elements of genuine physics simulation; in other words, the game is little bit like having access to a research lab on your personal computer. Many real scientific principles are approximated fairly well within the game, and there are lots of opportunities for students to discover something exciting just by playing. As a physicist myself, I’m sincerely impressed by the way Oxygen Not Included manages to convey complex science in an approachable way.
Filled to the Brim with Engineering Goodness
Just like in the real world, building a successful space colony is a massive engineering challenge. Here are a few of the engineering topics students will need to tackle in order to succeed:
- Fluid dynamics
- Personnel management
- Waste management
- Resource management
- Power grids
- Logic circuits
- Basic chemical engineering
Oxygen Not Included is a very difficult game, and each of these challenges requires a serious amount of effort to overcome. Players will fail on their first few tries – and this is a good thing! Professional engineering projects often require many attempts to get right, and students desperately need to experience the harsh teachings of failure firsthand.
Water Management in Space is Hard
As an example of just one of the many challenges players will face in Oxygen Not Included, let’s consider the problem of managing the colony’s water system.
The colony needs water for many things: growing crops, operating the bathrooms, removing CO2, and even making oxygen via electrolysis. The player needs to plan how to efficiently distribute water to and from each of the systems that need it. This leads to another problem: bathrooms tend not to return their water as clean as it was before, and other systems might also return their water in various states of contamination. Without careful planning, a colony’s entire water supply can easily become polluted and unusable.
The player must construct systems to filter out contaminated water, purify it, and return this precious resource back to the colony. Even with dedicated purification and recycling, some water will inevitably be lost over time, and the player will need to look for new water sources.
Melting ice, or condensing steam from a geyser might begin to seem like the easiest option, but this creates a new set of problems: if they start haphazardly transporting lots of hot (or cold) water into their base, students might cook (or freeze) their entire colony. They will need to engineer a way to offset the new temperature imbalance, which becomes an adventure unto itself.
The design of the game does a fantastic job of capturing the essence of what makes engineering so hard: every problem has many possible solutions, but every solution creates new problems. Success requires the ability to clearly see the big picture, while still getting the little details right.
How to Use Oxygen Not Included for School
As with most video games, you don’t really need to be directly involved while your child plays Oxygen Not Included. For the most part, you can just give them the game and walk away.
That having been said, if they have trouble or seem frustrated, you can assist them by pointing them towards useful resources for learning the game. Oxygen Not Included has a great wiki that students can search to learn more about any specific topic in the game, and there are many good tutorials on YouTube. A quick internet search can help a student with nearly anything they might struggle with.
You don’t need to test or grade your student. The game is constantly testing them already! Nonetheless, there are a few pieces of information you might want to occasionally check up on, in order to ensure they are making progress.
First, check how many days (or “cycles”) their colony has survived, which is the number shown in the top left of the screen. Second, ask how far they are in the technology tree. Third, ask if they have sent a spaceship to the Temporal Tear (this is considered “winning” the game). The average player takes at least 57 hours to reach the Temporal Tear, and you should expect your child to require a similar amount of time to truly become comfortable with the game.
At the very least, you should expect your student to be able to survive for at least 100 cycles after they have spent this long figuring the game out. Preferably, their colony should survive for at least 200-300 cycles and they should have researched most of the technologies in the technology tree. It isn’t necessary for students to “beat” the game before moving on, but if they do, they deserve some major congratulations. Anyone who can master Oxygen Not Included has the mind necessary to be a professional engineer.
Because of its high level of difficulty, and because it combines elements from so many fields of science and engineering, Oxygen Not Included is a great capstone for a student’s engineering studies. We thus strongly recommend using Oxygen Not Included as a Curriculum Mainstay for 11th or 12th grade engineering.
Oxygen Not Included can be purchased from Steam; at the time of writing, it is priced at $24.99. An expansion to the game, called Spaced Out!, is available for $12.99. Children who enjoy the game would likely appreciate Spaced Out!, but it is not essential for the educational experience.
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