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
Istanbul, Turkey: WCPE , 2012. 170-171 p.
University Physics, University Astronomy, Disciplinary discourse, 3D representations