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The Next Best Thing to Being There

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Chicago's Steve Bishop believes many more museums would be looking at simulator exhibits if high-quality educational software were available.

Maureen McGilligan-Bentin, a 4th grade teacher at Marquette Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, has been led to the simulator by her students, who found the exhibit earlier in the day. McGilligan-Bentin, a novice simulator pilot, doesn't look as enthusiastic as her students, but she gamely joins them in the "cockpit." After all, a spin on a simulator can't be any harder on the stomach than bringing a busload of kids a couple hundred miles and turning them loose in a museum.

A few minutes later, McGilligan-Bentin reappears and gives the machine a tentative thumbs up. "This is a good jumping-off point for other things," she says. "I can see using these simulators to introduce a topic to my students. As long as kids are engrossed, they can more easily learn." As she speaks, her students sprint to rejoin the line for another spin.

The Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center in San Diego is nearing completion on a new building, the centerpiece of which will be a simulator exhibit. Jeffrey Kirsch, the center's executive director, visited theme parks with ride simulators and came away believing the technology had the potential to be an effective teaching tool. He knew, though, that the simulator experience would be most fruitful if the audience had some prior knowledge of the topic. "Ride simulators work best," Kirsch says, "when the programming can tie content to the audience's prior learning."

Like a computer, a simulator is only as good as the programs that drive it. And thus far, there has not been much of a market for educational programming. "The content area is the big weakness right now," Kirsch says. "The major manufacturers to this point have not seen the need to develop high-quality educational software."

Chicago's Steve Bishop believes many more museums would be looking at simulator exhibits if high-quality educational software were available. "It's a chicken-and-egg thing," he says. "The museums don't want to put in simulators because there's very little decent programming, and the manufacturers don't want to produce quality programming because there aren't enough museums with simulators."

"Ride films have started to make headway in the educational market, but they have a long way to go."

Christian Jorge,
chief operating officer,
IMAX Ridefilm Theaters Corp.

Representatives of the simulator industry acknowledge that this is the case. After two decades of producing simulator software designed almost solely to entertain, programmers are now being challenged to beef up their film libraries for educational use. But the economic incentives aren't yet enough. Though amusement rides attract a large cross section of the public, the specialized focus of educational applications appeals to a much smaller audience. "There are not as many potential customers in the educational market," says Donald Wenzinger, national sales manager for Binghamton, New York-based Doron Precision Systems, "so it is hard for a manufacturer to produce a large, high-quality library that everyone can use." Doron built the very first ride simulator some 20 years ago, as well as the ones at the Museum of Science and Industry.

"Ride films have started to make headway in the educational market, but they have a long way to go," says Christian Jörge, chief operating officer of IMAX's Ridefilm Theaters Corp. "Programming is a question which must be addressed; you can't just make a film and slap a label on it to make it educational."

IMAX is marketing Dolphins—The Ride, released late last year, as a learning experience. The ride, according to its promotional materials, "brings education to life." The live-action, underwater film explores the habitat, behavior, and intelligence of the aquatic mammal, with the camera assuming the vantage point of a dolphin moving through underwater wrecks and over coral reefs in the Caribbean. The ride attempts to duplicate the dolphin's swimming motions as well as its interactions with both humans and other dolphins. The soundtrack includes the clicks and whistles of the dolphin's echo-location sonar.

Some in the industry, sensing the potential in the market for educational programming, have already committed substantial resources to the development of quality material. England-based Thomson Entertainment, the world's largest supplier of entertainment simulators, has welcomed the opportunity to expand into the educational arena. "We have long felt that there was a great opportunity to mix education with entertainment," says Seth Foster, Thomson's director of sales. "The reluctance had been on the museums' side, not seeing how the entertainment factor could add value to the experience rather than cheapen it. The museum community has realized that 'entertainment' isn't a dirty word."

Though the caliber of ride programming is crucial, equally important, experts say, is the quality of the pre- and post-show learning materials.

Toronto-based SimEx Inc. has recently produced seven ride films it believes are suitable for educational use and has three more in the works. "We have really made a commitment to the museums' mandate of educational content, and we have fleshed out the educational content of our rides," says Michael Needham, the company's chairman and CEO. "I don't think anyone else has made that kind of commitment yet." One of the films, Jove's Hammer places the viewer in a spaceship bound for a comet approaching Jupiter. Based on the real-life 1994 collision of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet with the planet, the ride attempts to strike a balance between flight of fancy and solid science. Yes, it's an imaginary trip to Jupiter, but it also includes accurate information on comets, planets, and gravity.

Though the caliber of ride programming is crucial, equally important, experts say, is the quality of the pre- and post-show learning materials. The simulator experience itself is short; most existing programs range in length from three to eight minutes. Given the movement and excitement that define the ride, lead-in and follow-up activities need to be part of the overall package for the experience to have educational merit. "Ride simulators are best used to get people excited about a subject," says Doron's Donald Wenzinger. "Then you can teach them through related exhibitry."

Kirsch of the San Diego science center concurs. "Science museums and centers have a role to play in developing better post-show material," he says. "This is really what you have to do to make the experience work as education."

Lloyd Rieber of the University of Georgia believes the follow-up experiences should include human interaction. A simulator ride, he says, is non-reflective; it doesn't make the rider stop and think about what he or she is learning. "It is very important that the rider be able to talk to someone about the concepts being presented—and that someone is the teacher," he says. "Someone must be there to challenge you on your beliefs and conception of the material."

But does the entertainment aspect of simulators bother Rieber? Not in the least. "I think the idea that fun and learning can't mix is wrong," he says. "You can have enjoyment and also have the opportunity to learn something important."

Only time will tell if the fledgling partnership between the educational community and the simulator industry will bear fruit. For Michael Needham of SimEx, there is no question. "We are still figuring out ways of putting all the elements together to attract and educate the audience," he says. "But it will all come together, and it will be a valid way of educating people."

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