We develop three-dimensional mental models of our physical environs from two dimensional imagery we collect with our eyes. This is possible only because we move through that environment, viewing it from multiple perspectives, and construct a model consistent with a collection of two-dimensional views. The technique works well for structures whose sizes are comparable to the magnitude of our movements, such as rooms, buildings, and even cities; but for much larger structures, we are effectively limited to a single perspective, and therefore must create mental models from indirect measures.
The astronomical realm is almost always in this latter category, and student understanding of the structure of the universe is limited by their inability to use multi-perspective techniques to generate an accurate mental image of astronomical structure. Without an accurate model, students tend to underestimate the distances to and between astronomical objects, leading to inaccurate assumptions regarding the overall size of the universe, the interactions between celestial objects, and our location within and among these structures.
To improve student understanding of the size, scale, and structure of our universe, we have developed hybrid laboratory activities based on a mix of hands-on discovery with physical models and multi- perspective visualization using the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) virtual environment. WWT, developed by Microsoft Research, managed and supported by the American Astronomical Society, and freely available to the world community, represents real astronomical data in a three-dimensional environment that students can investigate from a variety of physical perspectives. They can virtually “fly through”astronomical structures and thus use the same techniques they use in their local everyday environment to develop an accurate mental model on an astronomical scale.
These new lab activities connect indirect measurements of distance and structure (based on real astronomical data) to visualizations of those same structures, so that students understand the techniques by which structure is measured, and create accurate mental models of those structures. This not only improves their understanding of their astronomical environs, but also improves their understanding of the physical processes that occur in our universe.
We will present examples of these activities, and assessment data measuring the improvement in student understanding of astronomical size, scale, and structure, as a result of their interactions with these materials.