The Next Best Thing to Being There

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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."

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