Interview with Stuart Spence, Creator of Martian Agora

In this interview, we caught up with Stuart Spence soon after his presentation at the annual Mars Society conference. He is an Ontario resident, programming teacher and creator of the Mars simulation game Martian Agora.

HH: We’re here with Stuart Spence today. How’s it going?

Stuart Spence: I’m good. How about you?

HH: I’m good. So you mentioned you in your [Mars Society conference] talk that you’re a teacher. What do you teach exactly?

Spence: Yes, that’s right. I’m an instructor so I’m not actually certified to teach even though I’m still teaching, and it’s because they need technology teachers so badly that they made an exception. And I’m teaching technology and it’s almost any technology topic I want because no school administrator really knows how to tell me what to teach because they don’t know, they’re just like, “Oh, programming computers, I don’t know.” So I have a lot of freedom and I’ve chosen to teach a lot of 3D games programming, we also do stuff about privacy and encryption and a lot of programming and computer science, but mostly it’s 3D games. And that’s a high school level and my group is Grade 9, 10, 11 this year.

HH: How do you think that education system you have in Quebec compares to what we have here in the US?

Spence: It’s kind of hard to say because it’s Canada and the US, they are so big. But I do follow a fair bit of news and I would say to Canada and the US these standards for teachers are not very good, they don’t get enough support and they don’t get enough training, so we have that in common for sure.

So when you’re talking about teaching 3D games programming, something I’m trying to do is make it as simple as possible so that teachers who have never programmed before can still do this, because that’s really the big barrier we’re talking about in either country, is you can’t just make up a law one day and say, “Oh yeah” or this school board just decide we’re going to teach coding because they don’t have the teachers with the skills to do that. And I see in the United States a lot of really cool programs though.

So they have, just because they are eight times bigger or whatever, but in Canada they have a lot of funding to create large initiatives that look really great, but you’re not going to see a widespread adoption all over the country with these things. So I’m seeing a lot of really awesome programs in the States, stuff coming out of San Francisco of course naturally. That looks very promising and like alternative models of education, but when we’re talking about widespread adoption I think things are quite a bit of a mess right now.

And in either country if you’re a science teacher and you want to teach about acids and bases, what is the funniest video about acids and bases right now, a modern video? I don’t know, science teachers don’t know, and this is a problem we all have. They should be able to just be like, “Oh, here’s like a 10 minute funny video that came out two weeks ago.” And the teacher wouldn’t even know what celebrities they’re talking about in the video but they were just… There’s no system in place kind of unifying it, and definitely both countries have this problem.

HH: So you incorporate 3D games a lot, how do you think the 3D games can help inspire students for things like exploring Mars?

Unlike Miss Frizzle and her class in The Magic School Bus, you can’t just hop on a bus and explore the solar system.

Spence: That’s the question. So the thing about exploring Mars is we’re not the Magic School Bus with Miss Frizzle, you can’t just take a class and just, “Oh yeah, we’re going to go off and go to Mars today.” You need to do some kind of simulation, some kind of pretend or a game or imagine we’re there or what do you think it would be like if we were there. It’s really inevitable.

So if want to inspire kids to be interested in Mars, which by the way is really important, because at the Mars Society when we’re talking about all of these amazing plans, well, who is going to do it in 20 years,10 years? It’s going to be the kids in high school right now and we have to inspire them somehow, and playful learning is a great way to do that. That’s sort of a new idea in education where you can play games and learn a lot from it.

And so I’m already doing that with 3D games and it is so easy to just slip in a little bit of Mars. It’s as simple as making a game where you press play and you can just walk around and the floor is red and you just say it’s Mars, and that’s all it takes to imagine that. And then you start asking like, “Well when I jump, is this right? Where’s my oxygen, do I need oxygen?” They start asking all these questions just from a very, very, very simple game. And it doesn’t have to look like a nice polished game that you would buy, it can look really bad, and actually my game doesn’t look great. But in high school kids are just so happy to just do anything with 3D games, even if it’s their game that looks kind of like garbage and everything is cubes and just the art is terrible, they’re so happy to do it.

And you just can put in any theme you want, it could be Mars it, could be Earth, it could be anything you really, really want to do, and it doesn’t take much to just do it. Because a game in the end it does require imagination, you’re not being shown exactly perfectly world you’re simulating. There comes a point where the person who is playing it has to imagine it. And if you should tell them they’re imagining Mars they start asking all these questions about it and how to do that better.

A View of Martian Agora

HH: So at the Mars Society convention you showed an Open-source game that you created for your classes. I understand you’re going to show off a little bit about that today.

Spence: Yes. I think I’m going to fire that up and we’ll see if we can screen share on this feed. We’ll have a look at that just so people know what we’re talking about. Are you seeing my screen?

HH: I see it.

Spence: Okay. I’m going to fire it up. So Unity is a 3D game making tool and it’s free so that’s good. So this was the game I showed, and as I said the graphics aren’t perfect but it kind of looks like Mars. Actually this terrain isn’t real Mars terrain data, but my other levels are. This one is just kind of a test world. But one thing that is kind of neat you can hop in a rover, and I don’t know how good the stream is, if you can see how many frames you’re getting, so the wheels are bouncing up and down.

And there is something in high school called Hookes Law which has to do with springs and compression, and so even though this code here, when I made this game, you can’t just tell a class to “Hey, let’s make this”, it’s way too advanced for them. But what you can do is you can give them this project and you can tell them look for Hooke’s Law, show me Hooke’s Law in the code, and they can look through it and actually find that, which is pretty great. Another thing you can do here, this can tie into science class as well, these are flywheels so it’s like a heavy weight that’s spinning to store energy, there are some solar panels and you can build a bunch of stuff.

And this is again something I showed in the talk, but I just think it’s great, is the atmospheric water generator, so we know that there is trace amounts of water in a lot of Martian soil, and in this case I’m going to complete this, because the way this works is, well, I’ll put down the dome here, so in my inventory I’ve got some plastic sheets right here, and if I go around and build this, and it’s going to take a little moment, but the way this works is once this dome is built it traps sunlight and it heats up a little bit, and because of the low pressure it’s enough to evaporate and get some humidity in there. And then this is a condenser and it condenses and gets a little bit of water.

So you can bring this into a science class, you can bring this into a programming class, and there are a lot of difficult questions you’ve got to start asking yourself because you have all this information. Here’s the atmospheric water generator, it’s now active, it’s using my electricity and it’s making water. Right now it looks like it’s making about a kilogram every eight seconds, and you ask you class does that seem right, and it’s really not. If we had this kind of production on Mars of water that would be a dream, so you’ve got to go into the code and maybe adjust that. So there are all kinds of Mars science questions you can do with this, and of course the only reason you can do this is because I made this game and I’m just giving it away. You can open up this game and make any change you want to it, you can copy it and look at how it was made. Now normally when you buy a game, if you buy a commercial release, there are a lot of other examples of Mars games, but they’re not good for the classroom because if you see something like this, well the water is being produced too quickly.

If you buy a game, that’s it, you can’t change this, you’re stuck with this and you’re not allowed to change it with your game. So if your science class doesn’t like the science of your game, because a game is going to have errors in science all the time, but you’re just stuck. But when it is Open-source you’re allowed to do any changes you actually want. So that’s one of the games I made, I made quite a few others. I’m going to put my face back on. So there is the game, that’s one of them, I have more but that’s the Mars one and I’m I’m fond of that one, it’s good.

HH: Awesome. So that’s some of the benefits of open-source as opposed to closed source games.

Spence: Right. I got into that a little bit, but that’s really the trick. Well first really the audience people watching, the difference is that normally when you make a computer program there’s a lot of texts, it’s like a document so you’re actually writing text and instead of in English or French or whatever language, it’s written in a programming language, and it kind of looks a little more mathy and gibberishy. But you have all this text and programmers know how to read it and change it and they can understand it, but normally when you buy a program like Microsoft Office or World of Warcraft or a game, you don’t get that text, so that’s closed-source.

And the problem with this is that a lot of schools use a lot of closed-source software, so if you’re learning in your in your class, “Oh yeah, we’re going to play Minecraft” which there is a lot of educational value in Minecraft, but if a student asks, “Oh, that’s really cool. How does Minecraft do that?” The teacher has to actually answer like “Sorry, you’re not allowed to know the answer to that question.” It’s locked down, and that’s what closed source means, so a lot of what I’m trying to do is get schools to be more aware of this. It’s not a question of just never doing closed-source in schools and always using open source everything, you can’t be that extreme about it, but you do need to know the the drawbacks.

And there are a lot of advantages to Open-source that are really not being used enough, and if you want students to be interested in it, they can get into the code. I took a Open-source Minecraft clone, so someone remade a lot of Minecraft but they made it Open-source, so it’s not quite as good but it’s for a class, they’re like, “Whoa, it’s Minecraft” and they’re happy to take anything. And we made our changes to it and people could do all kinds of exercises with that. Someone changed the inventory screen, so normally it has a little Minecraft logo, and she changed it to some male model or something, I don’t know what she was doing but you don’t have that kind of freedom with a closed-source in a school, so you can give way more interesting assignments with that.

HH: Why do you think the software created by NASA and the CSA are closed-source?

Spence: Yes, how about that. That’s a problem and I spoke about that because it’s kind of surprising. They’re publicly funded and they’re released for education, when you play these games, there’s a catalog, and anyone can look them up, they’re free to play. Canadarm2, the Canada space agency made that, there’s the Curiosity rover game and there is Moonbase Alpha which I’m pretty sure that’s free, must be.

But these are all to raise public awareness, get people engaged with NASA and get interested in space exploration and Mars. But yes they are closed-source so what’s with that? I would love to take those games, like the NASA game and just open it up in my class and we could just have all kinds of fun with it, there’s all kinds of crazy stuff we can do with that but we can’t look at it in a classroom and it’s very weird. It’s definitely a case where the people who paid, because this was contract work, a lot of the time it’s not done internally in NASA, at least when I contacted the Canada Space Agency they outsourced the contract.

So these people who pay for that contract with public funds they simply don’t know to ask for it, and at this point it would just be as simple as like, “Oh yeah, by the way guys we just have that project and you just copy files and you just make them unavailable online.” That would be really great. I have some students putting a Superman into the Canadarm simulator or whatever, they put all kinds of weird things, they make it their own and that’s how they experience a game, because students now they’re not really settling for just “Oh yeah, here’s this tailored experience in a box and I’m just going to do this”, they want to take it and they want to make it their own and they just demand to make their own changes to it and be creative, and if they can’t they’ll get bored and they’ll go to something else because there are a million things they can work on creatively, and Open-source is great for that. But if it’s closed, they can’t do that.

So Open-source is great for that because you can make these changes. If it’s closed-source the people who make the game have to predict in advance what changes people will want to make, and they have to put it in a box and be like, “Oh, we’re pretty sure you’re going to want to change the world in this way.” But if it’s opened you can really change it any way, any weird, even inappropriate way. Sometimes students want to do that too.

HH: I think in your talk you mentioned some barriers for classroom integration.

Spence: Yes, that’s right.

HH: Mamma Yamma.

Mamma Yamma, the puppet host of Kids’ CBC. Image credit CBC

Spence: Yes, that was good. And actually in the talk I just gave that 20 seconds because the time was coming in on me. But the Mamma Yamma thing was pretty hilarious. In Toronto I went with the group called Kids Code Jeunesse and they’re trying to get coding into Canadian schools which is great, that’s what I’m all for. There’s a picture of this Elmo style kind of like a puppet, and it’s just this weird looking mutated potato thing, and I had no idea what this was, but apparently it’s like the Elmo of Canada, and when this person came in it was the actual person who does the voice and everything, and they were all like, “Yeah, it’s Elmo”, they loved it.

So Kids Code Jeunesse, the reason I brought that up, that’s what they do, they try to integrate this stuff in the classroom. I mentioned earlier this is a big issue because teachers may really want to do this but they do not get enough support for code and for technology. And this living in Mars stuff, they don’t get enough support for this at all, and that’s one thing that this organization does. We’re trying to figure out how to do that and we volunteer training as well to teachers, so teachers who have no idea what they’re doing with code we will help them and come to their class and work them through it. And it’s really just nowhere near as hard as you’d think it would be. Even 3D games, I’ve taught 3D games to a grade 7 group. The year isn’t 1997, making a 3D game is not hard anymore, there are a lot of tools, Unity is just one of them, there is a Open-source game engine, Godot, there is Blender, there is CryEngine, there are all these tools.

And especially in the case of Martian Agora, my Mars game, so I made that game and then a teacher can just take it and just look at it, so you really don’t need to know anything about coding to just copy a project, install Unity, open it up. So if you’re talking about integration, that’s really important and this is what’s great about Open-source, you only need one person, one guy, maybe me, to make Martian Agora. And then all over a country you could have teachers just copying it, and they don’t have to be expert game programmers to do it, they just take an existing project and I’ve built a few of these that are designed for people to look at them and learn from them.

HH: Awesome. So how many students have you met who are actually interested in exploring Mars?

Spence: So that’s a funny question because I would say at first, none. Because that’s an issue that the 3D game, the 3D Mars game can overcome, because you say Mars and high school students they don’t even really know what it is, they maybe know it’s a planet, and they don’t know maybe it’s a gas giant, they really don’t know. They don’t know that with a decent suit you can stand on Mars and it’s very reasonably Earth-like in a lot of ways. And there is a lot of interesting aspects of Mars that are way beyond what they’ve been taught. So no, they’re not interested at all in Mars. They don’t know about just geology, chemistry the physics of it, why would it matter if we found life on Mars. They’d be like “Well, I can just go outside and find bacteria in the ground, why do I care about Mars?” They don’t understand the significance of many of the questions we’re trying to answer, and so if you want to get students in on this, again, a great way is playful learning where they just jump into a game and they start asking Mars questions and you challenge them about their understanding on that.

HH: So what’s your favorite programming language?

Spence: That’s always a funny question. Programming languages, I know quite a few, I’m comfortable with quite a few. It really depends on what you’re doing, and generally the kind of projects I like to work on it’s great to use C# or Python. Python is great for random fun stuff, math challenges and algorithms and I do artificial intelligence stuff and machine learning, that’s another… I’m in computer science right now in school so Python is great for that, for numerical data processing and linguistic stuff, very fun. C# is really the language for me because of Unity, because that’s the compiled language it uses, and it’s very similar to Java which i had started off at McGill, the university I’m at. A lot of projects are Java so it’s so similar that I just quickly picked it up. So those two are pretty good I would say.

HH: Are you working on any programming projects right now?

Spence: Yes. Naturally in school I’m doing that, but sort of the things I’m working on now are more 3D visuals, because I have a lot of videos, I have 60 tutorial videos on Unity 3D for high school level stuff, they are five minutes long, how to make a jetpack, something like that. But now I’m trying to kind of step up my quality and I’ve made one that is a 3D games and trigonometry, so you make an obstacle course with platforms that move with a sine wave.

And I’m working on another one, that’s coding playground. Well I try to put a lot of this together as well. I have a few playlists, and one of them that I want to do which I totally can’t do now because I’m busy with school that I’m finishing in December and I’m going to start doing this is 3D games and Mars, so I’m going to go through Martian Agora and actually make these videos that piece by piece, five minutes on that and it will be like “Oh, how did I do the gravity when you jump?” And you need to look at the actual value of gravity or whatever.

And the angle I’m going here is there are videos for students, but I actually want to make these videos for teachers which is like my new thing. So I want to teacher to be able to not really know anything about coding basically and they can just download my project, open it in Unity, watch my five-minute video and they’re ready to do an hour of exercises with the class. Because teachers write lesson plans, these big documents, no one reads them, no one reads them, no one wants to read a 20-page document about how to teach a unit. I’ve met a lot of teachers, I feel like they skim them and they skip them and they just summarize. It’s a strange thing they do, and I feel like a video is a much more accelerated, easier thing to digest a lesson. And so I’m going to make some videos on how to do that with Martian Agora, but I need to clean up the project too because I made it a little while ago and I’m not fond of the code anymore, so I’m going to polish it up for that as well.

HH: And these are on YouTube and your website, right?

Spence: That’s right. I have a YouTube channel, if you search Stuart Spence, there’s also Coding Playground is the website where I put all this together right now at My more professional portfolio is where you see really everything I’ve done. The Coding Playground, I’m trying to step that up and turn this into something. I really feel like I don’t want to make a video that has been made a thousand times, like ‘here is what a decimal is’ and I’m out of chalkboard; I’m not going to do that. I want to make a video that’s never been made before, like ‘here is in trigonometry the cosine wave, this is making this platform move like this and we’re going to jump around on it and collect coins’. I just know that hasn’t been done at a high school level so that’s the kind of thing I’m putting together.

HH: Okay. That’s all I’ve got. Anything you’d like to add?

Spence: Not really. I’m starting up, probably starting up, if I decide to do it I guess, in January a Masters in Education technology. I’m really hoping to work together with educators on some kind of projects, I’m looking for internships, hopefully paid or unpaid if they’re awesome. I am looking for projects to work on with people, it would help if I had a team. I’m not an artist for one thing, I did all the art on Martian Agora myself and it took a lot of work and it’s okay I guess. So what I would mention is just I am looking for teams of people who are interested in anything I just said and maybe want to work on projects with me, as long as they’re Open-source and free generally, or some kind of model that’s very flexible. I don’t want students to look at my website or look at videos and get an ad for World of Warcraft – you’re trying to learn, you should not be seeing an ad, it should be pretty much free. So if people are interested in that they should contact me and I’ll get back to them about that.

HH: Awesome. Thank you.

Spence: And thanks a lot for interviewing me. I was checking out your channel, it’s really bunch of neat interviews, that’s good. So thanks.

HH: Thanks.

Stuart Spence at the Mars Society Conference

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