Thinking About Space

The advent of the personal computer and the Worldwide Web revolutionized the way we interact with each other, and information about, well about everything. A cliché, without a doubt. From an educational standpoint, these virtual interactions have yet to fulfill their promise, with many of them little more than novelties and games. Computers have provided innovative means to collect and analyze data in the classroom, to access data online, and to change the parameters in simulations to better understand the relationships between variables. A common limitation of these activities is the learner remains passive, observing what is taking place, or simply acquiring information. It is the rare program or website that truly provides a dynamic environment for learners to actively engage in manipulating a scenario and making sense out of phenomena. Desktop planetarium software does provide the ability to navigate through space and time with relative ease; however, in many ways, it is more suited to acquiring data for historic or future astronomical events. The folks at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) are out to change this, creating a virtual environment for learners to engage in inquiry about a variety of astronomical phenomena through the Worldwide Telescope (WWT), an astronomy visualization program created by Microsoft Research, and now an open source program hosted by the American Astronomical Society.

For a number of years, the WWT Ambassadors team, led by Alyssa Goodman and Patricia Udomprasert, has tested the efficacy of WWT as a platform for inquiry. An NSF EAGER grant allowed them to collect data to demonstrate its potential, resulting in a larger DRK-12 development grant to produce a series of modules utilizing guided inquiry to teach about astronomical phenomena and spatial thinking. One finding from their initial research is how WWT as a learning tool is particularly effective when combined with activities where learners physically manipulate objects to model the phenomena they are investigating in WWT. It turns out the learners develop a more accurate, and durable mental model of the phenomena when using both tools together than with either in isolation.

This has some profound implications for education in general, particularly when it comes to providing opportunities for learners to develop their spatial thinking. Co-Principal Investigator Julia Plummer (Pennsylvania State University) of the DRK-12 project says: “One of the main issues in spatial thinking in astronomy is learning to visualize both static and dynamic objects and systems and then imagine how those objects or systems would look from different perspectives.” In traditional astronomy teaching, static images are frequently used to represent dynamic phenomena, without providing learners enough support to allow them to construct a mental model of the phenomena. The WWT-based labs designed by the WWT Ambassadors team allow learners to move around within the visualization, observing the phenomena from a variety of perspectives. Combined with physical manipulation of objects through modeling of the phenomena, learners are able to undertake spatial transformations, shifting their perspective in real time, thus providing a greater amount of information for their construction of a mental model to explain the actual phenomena.

wwt screen shot copy

Image courtesy Patricia Udomprasert and the WWT Ambassadors team

In general, astronomy has been hampered with an inability to run direct investigations on distant phenomena. We can only observe, and infer through modeling what is occurring. Translated into a learning environment, astronomy does not fit into the neat sequence of the “scientific method” as taught in the majority of classrooms. Astronomy does, however, provide a rich milieu for incorporating modeling into the learning environment, with the opportunity to develop spatial thinking skills with wider application for learners not only in the study of science, but for life skills in general. Platforms and dynamic visualization environments, such as those under development at CfA, will hopefully serve to move the use of computers and online resources away from mere information gathering tools for passive learners, towards model-building simulators, where learners actively investigate phenomena to build their own mental models of how the universe operates.

To learn more about the Worldwide Telescope, go to

This post originally appeared as the Education Matters column in the Spring 2016 issue of Mercury Magazine, published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.  The author serves on the advisory panel for the ThinkSpace Labs project.

This entry was posted in Astronomy, Education Matters, Science Education. Bookmark the permalink.

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