This was a project I did with my colleague Kenneth Hay around an introductory astronomy course for undergraduate students in which we moved from the large-lecture format to one in which students are immersed within a technologically-rich, constructionist learning environment.
Specifically, we had undergraduate students using virtual reality to construct models of the solar system, and in the process, build rich understandings of various astronomical phenomena. The curriculum was developed collaboratively by an astronomy professor, Ken Hay and myself, and a graduate student studying astrophysics and instructional systems technology here at IU. We have engineered our research and development as a series of “design experiments” with the intention of carrying out multiple layers of analysis (Brown, 1992), in which we introduce various design modules (thought experiments, stand-and-deliver sessions, compare/contrast sessions, modeling challenges) and “trace” learning as it relates to each module. These findings are then fed back into our classrooms and we examine how these innovations impact the learning process.
Three projects were designed with the expectation that students would model various astronomical phenomena on their computers.
- Project No. 1 is to model the Celestial Sphere. This project requires students to model fundamental astronomical concepts concerning the equinoxes, the solstices and the ecliptic and the celestial equator. Students decide upon scaling parameters, discuss how their model compares with the real solar system, and generate viewpoints so that users can visualize the equinoxes and solstices from multiple locations.
- Project No. 2 is to model the Earth-Moon-Sun system. This includes proper sizes, distances between objects, surface features, correct tilts of the bodies, and correct rotation and orbital periods. In addition, students are to provide a cut-away view or a transparent view that shows the interior structure of the Sun, Earth, and Moon.
- Project No. 3 is to model the entire solar system, including both the terrestrial planets and Jovian planets. Specifically, students are expected to make a model of the Sun, eight planets (Pluto and Ceres as options), six satellites (Moon, Galilean satellites of Jupiter, Titan, and Triton), the Saturn ring system, and with the option of adding comets and asteroids. Again, these bodies must have their proper orbits, sizes, colors, spin, distances, and interior structures.
Student models were expected to address syllabus-delineated questions related to important astronomical phenomena. Each group negotiates plans to answer the questions, identifies resources (textbook, WWW, and scientists), designs and builds their models, evaluates them, uses them to demonstrate answers to the initial questions, and shares their models with other groups. Each project has four concluding activities. First, teams create a joint paper describing the features of their model. Second, each student presents and explains their team’s model to students from other groups in an automatic virtual environment (CAVE). The CAVE is a walk-in stereoscopic VR display device that creates a total immersion experience for the learner. Third, students engage in a group presentation in which they demonstrate the functionality of their model to the entire class, using an overhead display in the regular classroom. Fourth, students write individual papers that compare and contrast their projects with other projects in the class and with the characteristics of the real solar system. These projects allow students to take advantage of virtual reality and modeling to enact basic astronomy concepts (i.e., tilt of the Earth, period of orbit, phases of the Moon, the Line of Nodes), facilitating the development of robust understandings.
- Virtual Solar System Project: Developing Scientific Understanding Through Model Building
- Constructivism in Practice: A Comparison and Contrast of Apprenticeship and Constructionist Learning Environments
- Constructing Virtual Worlds: Tracing the Historical Development of Learner Practices
- Doing Science at the Elbows of Experts: Issues Related to the Science Apprenticeship Camp
About Sasha A. Barab PhD
Sasha Barab is a Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, where he co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Games and Impact.
Dr. Barab is an internationally recognized Learning Scientist who holds the Pinnacle West Chair of Education, and who has researched, designed, and published extensively on the challenges and opportunities of using games for impact.