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UMaine astrophysicist collaborates on $2.7 million STEM initiative

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ORONO — A research team led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in collaboration with University of Maine astrophysicist Neil F. Comins will use the video game Minecraft to motivate interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) topics. Using the Minecraft platform, children can ask space-related what if questions to explore hypothetical exoplanets and see how their worlds differ from Earth.

Led by University of Illinois educational psychology professor H. Chad Lane, the project is funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation. At UMaine, Comins is one of three co-principal investigators on the project, “Fostering Enduring Interest in STEM Through Exoplanet Education and Interactive Exploration and Creation of Potentially Habitable Worlds.” 

The initiative will tap the content from two of Comins’ popular books — “What If the Moon Didn't Exist?” and “What If the Earth Had Two Moons?” — and other what if scenarios being developed at the University of Maine. 

Called a “new genre” when first published, Comins’ books are on the boundary between science and science fiction. In them, he explores what Earth-like worlds would be like if they or their astronomical environments were different from conditions currently on Earth, such as the Earth forming without a moon. 

The books resulted from Comins’ young son’s frequent what if questions. Now, the NSF-funded project brings those questions full circle, Comins says, by allowing Minecraft players to pose a wide range of astronomical what if queries and explore how the worlds they thereby create are different than our world.  

The conditions for numerous alternative Earths are being developed by Comins and UMaine graduate student Zach Smith. These will be the foundations of users’ what if worlds. These scenarios will be programmed into Minecraft by graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  

Comins’ what if worlds have been made into a variety of television and planetarium shows. “What if the Moon Didn’t Exist?” also served as the basis for Mitsubishi’s pavilion at World Expo, Aichi in 2005 in Nagoya, Japan, and as a show at the Japanese resort Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki, Japan, that has been presented regularly since 2006. 

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 September 2019 13:27

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