Online Game Sparks Understanding of Charged Particles
screen shot of ion engine gameView of the online Ion Engine Simulation game. Image credit: NASA/JPL

NASA/JPL education specialist Art HammonNASA/JPL education specialist Art Hammon. Image credit: NASA/JPL
by Art Hammon, Ph.D.

Art Hammon develops NASA/JPL space-related, science and math education resources. Before working at JPL, Art was a middle- and high-school science teacher for 25 years in New Hampshire.

One of my favorite resources is a video game that demonstrates how JPL engineers use electric charges to propel NASA spacecraft around the solar system. The online game is called the Ion Engine Simulation. Students can do the activity at school or at home and teachers can use it as a teaching resource in their classrooms.

The goal of the activity is for students to get a better understanding of how electrically charged particles interact with each other and how spacecraft engineers make use of this principle. A set of teacher/student guides on the site may be used after the students have explored the activity to teach principles of science and mathematics.

Game Play:

To get started, the site first offers a tutorial (also in the form of a game) that conveys the strength and behavior of charged particles. In another activity, students use their mouse to place virtual electric charges on a screen and push another charge through a maze. A third activity is designed as a soccer game between the student and the computer. Players have positive or negative (+ or –) charges on their helmets to guide the charge into a goal. The final activity is to design an ion engine, set charges and plate distances and then measure the force of acceleration.

Student Ability Level:

This activity works with a wide age range -- students in grades 3 through 12. Students can get the family involved by showing parents and siblings the Web site.

Classroom Tips:

-- Allow students to explore the Web site before introducing the student/teacher guides. The discussion will be enhanced by the video simulations and individual student involvement.

-- The "Charge Simulator" section has 10 challenges. Have a contest to see which student can make it to number 10 (they become more complicated and difficult as you go up a level).

To play the Ion Engine game or download the student and teacher guides, go to .