The Next Best Thing to Being There

By David Field — May 01, 1998 12 min read
Educators and museum officials are discovering that ride simulators have the potential to teach as well as thrill.

Striding confidently across the flight deck of the USS George Washington, Mike Leach approaches the F-14 fighter and wedges himself into a seat inside its cramped cockpit. With some final words of encouragement, the flight deck officer shuts the hatch, and a few seconds later Mike is catapulted off the front end of the aircraft carrier and into the fury of a three-and-a-half minute mission through hostile territory, complete with anti-aircraft fire and engine failure.

Mike is an 8th grader from suburban Chicago. And though he bounds breathless from the cockpit when his “flight” lands, he has never left the confines of a small, dark room tucked into the recesses of the Museum of Science and Industry on Chicago’s South Side. His “F-14" is in fact a plastic-walled cabin perched atop hydraulic jacks and outfitted with a high-definition television screen. A computer synchronizes the movements of the images on the screen at the front of the cabin with those of the hydraulics, creating for the occupants an experience harrowingly close to that of a naval aviator.

Born of amusement parks some two decades ago, ride simulators like this one have become attractions in an odd assortment of places, from the Empire State Building to local shopping malls. Now educators and museum officials are discovering that this unique technology—able to provide convincing real-world, first-hand experiences within just five minutes and 15 square feet—has the potential to teach as well as thrill. As a result, simulators are finding their way into museums and science centers around the nation. It’s a natural marriage, as museums are always searching for exhibits that not only fulfill their educational mandate but also attract a crowd.

“The best fit to our needs are ride simulators,” says Mike Day of the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. “They are the next thing in science museums.”

Simulators have been used for years to instruct astronauts, fighter pilots, and submarine drivers, the theory being that heightened reality leads to heightened retention. That theory is also behind many of the Museum of Science and Industry’s exhibits, which include an actual Boeing 727 hanging from the ceiling and a World War II-vintage German submarine. “People learn better kinetically,” says Steve Bishop, manager of Space Center and Omnimax projects at the museum. “When they can experience what it feels like to be shot off an aircraft carrier deck, they will take more away from that experience. Better motion translates into better learning.”

Increasing numbers of children will be able to use the technology if the interest among museums and science centers continues to grow.

Lloyd Rieber, associate professor of instructional technology at the University of Georgia’s college of education, agrees. “The kinesthetic side of learning is important,” he says. “It’s good to be able to feel what’s going on.” As an example, Rieber points to a computer simulation that allows the user to feel the relative “weight” changes in a mathematical equation as numbers are added or subtracted.

Still, simulators won’t be appearing in schools any time soon. As effective as they may be as a learning tool, the cost of the hardware and the programs that drive them are too steep for most districts. But increasing numbers of children will be able to use the technology if the interest among museums and science centers continues to grow. Both, after all, are popular destinations for families and school groups alike.

Ride simulators are driven by complex computer software programs that synchronize film or video footage with moving seats, cabins, or platforms. Just as home desktop computers can run a variety of software, simulator hardware can be easily programmed to run any number of different rides. The machines achieve the illusion of reality by providing visual and physical clues sufficient to make riders believe that they are actually living the experience. It’s not for the weak of heart—or stomach. Signs placed prominently in view of those in line to ride warn anyone with heart trouble, motion sickness, claustrophobia, or a host of other infirmities of the potential for disaster.

Though many ride films are produced solely through the use of computer graphics, exhibit designers at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry chose live-action film for their simulators. Computer graphics, they felt, would defeat the purpose. “If the whole idea is to recreate reality as closely as possible,” says Steve Bishop, “then why use artificial means to do that?”

Some simulators are large, open platforms that seat as many as 40 riders at a time in front of a stationary large-format movie screen. Most are smaller. The Chicago museum has two F-14 ride simulators, both of which are fully enclosed 15-seat cabins that use high-definition televisions for image reproduction. Gentle they are not; even the hardiest of souls has been known to turn green.

It’s clear from the students’ reactions that the ride simulator fulfills the entertainment half of the “edutainment” equation.

The motion of the ride, of course, varies according to the simulated experience. The ride adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which is intended to impart a “magic carpet ride sensation” as it transports the viewer through the main character’s fictional home town on Prince Edward Island, is tame in comparison to one filmed from the front seat of a roller coaster or from behind the steering wheel of a race car.

The F-14 flight simulation at the Museum of Science and Industry, though lacking the vigor of many amusement park machines, certainly has its share of white-knuckle bumps and stomach-in-the-throat turns—much to the delight of the museum’s teenage visitors. Their screams and squeals resound over the noise of the system’s hydraulics, and when the cabin door opens once again the plethora of ear-to-ear grins speaks of an entertainment value that is sky-high. “Wow! Can we go again?” asks one student, who is still grabbing the seat in front of her as if her life depended on it. “That’s bad-ass!” says another, apparently having left his inhibitions at 20,000 feet.

It’s clear from the students’ reactions that the ride simulator fulfills the entertainment half of the “edutainment” equation. But what about the other half? What, exactly, did these students learn from their experience?

“I learned I really don’t want to be a fighter pilot,” says one less-than-enthusiastic student.

“Flying a fighter plane is probably not as easy as it looks,” says another, whose friend nods and adds in all seriousness, “you could definitely die in an F-14.”

Asked if he could have learned the same things by simply watching a video presentation, one 8th grader replies that “without the motion, it would be a much less worthwhile experience.”

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.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as The Next Best Thing to Being There