A while ago I tweeted about how a couple students were working on Capstone projects that involved Fortnite, and there was a substantial (by my standards) interest in the details, so I’m here to share what they came up with!

First, for some background on what the Capstone process looks like in my class, head over to this post from last year. Even though I said I would like to change some stuff, I didn’t very much this year… I need a better system for making sure I actually incorporate the changes I think of, plus my wife had our third boy in April so like… I’m giving myself a mulligan on this one. If I get it together and improve the project for next year I’ll let you know.

So basically, what happened was this: two students who had a below-average level of engagement during the regular school year jumped at the chance to choose whatever topic of inquiry they would like for their capstone project. These particular kids are huge fans of Fortnite, the improbably popular Battle Royale game. When we were discussing how previous students had analyzed video games, I brought up that Fortnite actually has some real potential as a basis for Physics inquiry. It has a pretty good spectator-replay mode where you can view any action in the game with a fixed camera, so you can do video analysis on different actions in game (provided you can execute those actions without, um, getting executed). When they realized that they could look at Fortnite, it was off to the races.

One student does a lot of YouTubing about video games and was aware that another vlogger he follows had put out the fan theory that maybe Fortnite happens on the planet Venus. One of the main pieces of evidence was that the acceleration due to gravity is weaker in Fortnite than on Earth, explaining why the characters can jump so high, but my student wondered whether that was really the case because the vlogger proposing this theory hadn’t actually taken data or done the calculation. So we talked about what kind of data he would need to find out whether they were right.

The second student was interested in analyzing an aspect of the game’s physics that contributes to the technical mechanics of winning it: “bullet drop”, which is the distance a bullet falls as it reaches its target. Players of this game who use the longest-range rifles need to get good at aiming above their targets to account for this feature, which is built in to balance the weapon type and keep it from being overpowered. We talked about what kinds of things you could calculate that had to do with bullet drop. This was a great back-and-forth because he was an expert on what information the game makes easily available to the player, and because he hadn’t been that engaged this year, he now had a lot of really good questions about what you could do with that information to figure out other information. We settled on using a measured shot distance and bullet drop to estimate average bullet speed.

In order to make the bullet drop calculation, this second student also needed to know the acceleration due to gravity on the mysterious Fortnite world. This was an awesome authentic overlap between the two students’ projects, which meant that they would be able to check their work by looking for agreement on this value (or potentially uncover interesting inconsistencies in the game’s physics).

The two students also had to solve the problem of determining the scale of the Fortnite world, and they each came up with different, interesting ways to measure and estimate distances. I’ll link their projects below so you can see what they did. (I advise skipping the 6 and a half minutes or so of the first student’s video – he spends a lot of time going over the other vlogger’s Venus theory and doesn’t get to the physics until after all of that. But the formal response to the other guy’s work was important to him and part of his motivation for working, so while I found it pretty uninteresting, I think he got value out of it – I still advised him in my feedback to reduce the length and intensity of this part of his video.)

I’ll just let you know ahead of time that neither student actually completed their calculations correctly. After I went through and fixed their math mistakes, I found that 1) the numbers that they calculated for gFortnite actually came pretty close to agreeing, and 2) the second student’s estimate for the bullet speed is not an inappropriate value for a real-life rifle. Both of which were pretty cool!

The “Is Fortnite on Venus” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzjTEWSOdaM

The “Estimating Rifle Speed” slideshow: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1fztcOZ7do0cyvmUfdBAZP3taWFKCpn3q1F0FX1Rx4vk/edit?usp=sharing

Now since the students didn’t get the math right, was their work a waste of time? Heck no! These were two students who had a hard time finding something to “own” about the course for most of the year. As part of this project, they set their own goals and had an incredibly authentic experience of gathering data, trying to make sense of it, and comparing work with a colleague. I think the work they did mirrored, in some really important ways, the work that scientists did at the dawn of Newtonian science to determine the best way to measure motion in our real universe. Finding different ways to calculate the same value and taking their agreement as justification for the linked conceptual frameworks that support each one? I mean come on!

Ultimately, we had fun and got some real Physics done, but this was also a missed opportunity. We didn’t have time to close the assessment loop and get their issues corrected. My curriculum partner and I have found this is a pretty common problem with many of our capstone projects – students generate all these auxiliary problems as a result of the true freedom they’re granted in choosing a topic and format, and many times end up forgetting something important about the physics concepts in their final result. In the future we’re going to move the presentations up so that there’s time afterwards for them to incorporate feedback from peers and teachers. I also lament that we didn’t do this project earlier! Having piqued the interest of these two earlier in the year, could I have kept it going and had them bring more energy and interest to other areas of the curriculum?

So, what do you think? I will readily admit that these projects are pretty rough, but I think they actually kind of make the case that opening up the opportunity for students to do some independent research and setting their own goals, even in the sort of worst-case-scenario where they don’t get it totally right, is still a worthwhile experience.

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