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Who needs 3D when the Universe is flat?
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. Kristianstad University. (Physics Education research, Fysikens didaktik)ORCID iD: 0000-0001-6638-1246
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education research, Fysikens didaktik)
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education research, Fysikens didaktik)
Kristianstad University.
2012 (English)Conference paper, Presentation (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Learning astronomy can be difficult for students at all levels due to the highly diverse, conceptual and

theoretical thinking used in the discipline. A variety of disciplinary-specific representations are normally

employed to help students learn about the Universe. Some of the most common representations are twodimensional

(2D) such as diagrams, plots, or images. In astronomy education there is an implicit assumption

that students will be able to con- ceptually extrapolate three-dimensional (3D) representations from these 2D

images (e.g., of nebulae); however, this is often not the case (Hansen et al. 2004a,b; Molina et al. 2004;

Williamson and Abraham 1995; N.R.C. 2006, p. 56).

The way in which students interact with different disciplinary represen- tations determines how much and

what they will learn; yet, our literature review indicates that not much is known about this interaction. We

have therefore chosen to investigate students’ reflective awareness evoked by 3D representations. Reflective

awareness relates to the learning affordances that engagement with a collection of representations

facilitates. The notion of reflection is drawn from the work of Schön (cf. 1983) in that it is related to our

learning experience and involves the noticing of ‘new things’ and the noticing of ‘things’ in new ways as part

of dealing with puzzling phenomena. Much of the research into Astronomy Education Research (AER) has

been carried out at pre-university levels (Bailey and Slater 2003; Bailey 2011; Bre- tones and Neto 2011;

Lelliott and Rollnick 2010), and furthermore very little has been grounded in a disciplinary discourse

perspective (Airey and Linder 2009). Our study sets out to address both of these shortcomings.

Our research question is: What is the nature of university students’ re- flective awareness when engaging

with the representations used to illustrate the structural components and characteristics of the Milky Way

Galaxy in a simulation video?

Although not common, when 3D is introduced, then this is often done using video simulations. For our study

we chose to use a highly regarded video simulation that illustrates some of the fundamental structural

components of our Universe in a virtual reality journey through, and out of, our galaxy. In the study, the first

1.5-minutes of the video was set to automatically pause in seven places (these places where optimally

determined in a small pre-study), and a web questionnaire was created to elicit the participants’ reflective

awareness about the structural components and characteristics of the Milky Way in each clip. A total of 137

participants from physics and astronomy in Europe, North America, South Africa and Australia took part in

the study. The written reflective descriptions from the survey were coded and sorted into constructed

categories, using a constant comparison approach (cf. Gibbs 2002; Strauss 1998).

Many of the participants expressed poor prior awareness of the 3D struc- ture of the universe, as evidenced

by their ‘surprise’ in observing 3D features such as the large separation of the stars in Orion or the two

nebulae in Orion. Many were also surprised by the extent of the grand scale of the (local) Uni- verse as they

realised that the journey covers great distances in only a few seconds. In contrast, those participants who

rated themselves as astronomy experts had already developed a 3D awareness of the universe. They used

much more complex descriptions and to some extent commented on struc- tures and phenomena omitted

from the simulation, such as HI-regions and infrared radiation from HII-regions, although these are invisible

to the naked eye.

In this talk we report on 3D-related issues, which we will discuss in re- lation to implications for using such a

simulation as a resource intended to enhance the possibility of learning. There are two main findings of our

study concerning 3D: firstly, one of the clearest differences in reflective awareness to emerge was that there

was a gradual increase of awareness of structures and phenomena in relation to the educational level of the

astronomy partic- ipants. Interestingly, this is not the case for the physics participants and we will argue that

this is due to differences in the disciplinary discourses of physics and astronomy. The second finding is that

the use of the simulation video successfully stimulated participants’ awareness of the 3D structure of the

Universe as seen in their expressed surprise. We therefore argue that simula- tions can be a powerful and

necessary tool in helping develop an awareness of the three-dimensional Universe and that simulations

therefore are one of the critical forms of representation that open up the space for learning in astronomy.


Airey, J. and Linder, C. (2009). A disciplinary discourse perspective on university science learning: Achieving

fluency in a critical constellation of modes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1):27–49.

Bailey, J. M. (2011). Astronomy education research: Developmental history of the field and summary of the

literature. National Research Council Board on Science Education’s.

Bailey, J. M. and Slater, T. F. (2003). A review of astronomy education research. Astronomy Education

Review (AER), 2(2):20–45.

Bretones, P. S. and Neto, J. M. (2011). An analysis of papers on astronomy education in proceedings of iau

meetings from 1988 to 2006. Astronomy Education Review, 10(1):010102.

Gibbs, G. R. (2002). Qualitative Data Analysis: Explorations with NVivo. Open University Press.


Hansen, J. A., Barnett, M., MaKinster, J. G., and Keating, T. (2004a). The impact of three-dimensional

computational modeling on student under- standing of astronomical concepts: a quantitative analysis.

International Journal of Science Education, 26(11):1365–1378.

Hansen, J. A., Barnett, M., MaKinster, J. G., and Keating, T. (2004b). The impact of three-dimensional

computational modeling on student un- derstanding of astronomy concepts: a qualitative analysis.

International Journal of Science Education, 26(13):1555–1575.

Lelliott, A. and Rollnick, M. (2010). Big ideas: A review of astronomy education research 1974–2008.

International Journal of Science Education, 32(13):1771–1799.

Molina, A., Redondo, M., Bravo, C., and Ortega, M. (2004). Using simula- tion, collaboration, and 3d

visualization for design learning: A case study in domotics. In Luo, Y., editor, Cooperative Design,

Visualization, and Engineering, volume 3190 of Lecture Notes in Computer Science, pages 164–171. Springer


Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Istanbul, Turkey: WCPE , 2012. 170-171 p.
Keyword [en]
University Physics, University Astronomy, Disciplinary discourse, 3D representations
National Category
Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology Didactics
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-234623OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-234623DiVA: diva2:757320
World Conference on Physics Education
Available from: 2014-10-21 Created: 2014-10-21 Last updated: 2014-10-21

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