Building an Understanding of Astronomical Sizes and Scales with WorldWide Telescope

Abstract

The project is creating, testing, and distributing new curricular materials to integrate the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) astronomy visualization environment into the hands-on laboratory programs in undergraduate general education astronomy courses. The new material is designed to address and alter student misconceptions regarding size, scale, and structure in the universe. The four lab-based activities,

i) Parallax Measurements and the Distances to Nearby Stars,

ii) Spectroscopic Parallax and the Distance to Star Clusters,

iii) Globular Clusters and the Size of the Milky Way Galaxy, and

iv) The Hubble Law and Measures of Large-Scale Structure,

allow students to investigate the essential ways astronomers measure distance in our universe in an interactive 3-D visualization environment with real astronomical data. This multi-perspective visualization of inherently 3-D astronomical structures produces a much more intuitive view than can static 2-D diagrams in traditional curricular materials, and it has the potential to transform student understanding of size, scale, and structure in the universe. Students can compare their own conceptions of size, scale, and structure with evidence-based maps, and develop a more accurate mental model for their celestial surroundings.

These new curricular materials are being tested through application in general education astronomy courses first at Bucknell University and subsequently at partner institutions. Gains in student understanding are being measured using research-validated concept inventories and other qualitative assessments. Once the curricular materials have been shown to be effective in reducing student misconceptions, they are to be widely available, along with associated documentation, to the Astronomy 101 teaching community. WWT is freely available and runs on virtually any PC, so instructors at a wide range of institutions can make use of the developed curricular materials.

Broader Impacts: The concepts of size, scale, and structure extend beyond topical boundaries in STEM disciplines. From the smallest scales of nuclear and atomic physics, to the hidden geometry of Earth's crustal plates and faults, to the gargantuan scale of our universe, students are challenged to visualize and comprehend unseen and inaccessible geometries. Though the curricular materials deal specifically with these issues in an astronomical context, they provide opportunities for students of all disciplines to visualize unseen entities and build a coherent understanding of an inaccessible structure based on scientific interpretation of observational data. Three dimensional visualization and spatial reasoning skills have been shown to be critical for success not only in STEM careers, but also in careers not directly involving science and technology. For undergraduate students not majoring in a STEM discipline, a general education astronomy class may provide their only college experience in 3-D spatial visualization. The curricular activities in this project provide those students with the opportunity to explore 3-D astronomical structures in an interactive and student-driven intuitive environment. Practice in manipulating 3-D objects substantially increases spatial reasoning skills and improves a student's ability to create accurate mental maps of complex 3-D objects. This project brings powerful spatial visualization software to the undergraduate general education classroom, and helps non-science students develop spatial reasoning skills while forming a more accurate map of their natural surroundings. (NSF DUE-1140440)