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 two-dimensional (2D) such as diagrams, plots, or images. In astronomy education there is an implicit assumption that students will be able to conceptually extrapolate three-dimensional (3D) representations from these 2D images (e.g., of nebulae); however, this is often not the case (Hansen, Barnett, MaKinster, & Keating, 2004a, 2004b; Molina, Redondo, Bravo, & Ortega, 2004; N.R.C, 2006; Williamson & Abraham, 1995).
Simulation videos are often called on to dynamically introduce students to the structure and complexity of the Universe. We therefore chose to investigate, drawing on a range of educational experience, the nature of the reflective awareness evoked by being exposed to an array of 3D representations taken from a well-used simulation video in astronomy education. A key concept for this work is the notion of disciplinary affordances. Fredlund, Airey, and Linder (2012, p. 658) define the disciplinary affordances of a given representation as ―the inherent potential of that representation to provide access to disciplinary knowledge‖. Recent reviews indicate that most of the work done in astronomy education has taken place at a pre-university level and that none has focussed on disciplinary affordance vis-à-vis 3D representation (Bailey, 2011; Bailey & Slater, 2003; Bretones & Neto, 2011; Lelliott & Rollnick, 2010). The work reported here addresses both these shortcomings.
The simulation video used in our study was originally created by Brent Tully. After a pilot study a section of the video was selected to be cut into 7 clips (about 15s each). These clips formed the framing of a web survey that asked participants to write down their reflective awareness following after viewing of each video clip, for e.g. what comes to mind, things noticed, new realizations, etc.
A total of 137 participants from university physics and astronomy settings in Europe (42), North America (76), South Africa (3) and Australia (16) took part in the web survey (79 men and 58 women). The reflective descriptions from the survey were coded and used to construct categories, using a hermeneutic constant comparison approach (cf. Gibbs, 2002; Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
A limited number of categories emerged and were grouped under the overarching theme we decided to call Parallax. This was because Parallax captured all the statements reflecting awareness of the structural and positional affordances offered by the 3D-video. The analysis showed qualitative differences between the categories, where 3D refers to the highest level of awareness and Speed, travel or motion refers to the lowest level. There are also sub-categories, for e.g., for Speed, travel or motion there are two main ways of experiencing, either the observers or the observed objects, are described in terms of moving in a relative way.
Many of the novice participants expressed poor prior awareness of the 3D structure of the universe and surprise by the extent of the grand scale of the (local) Universe. 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 structures and phenomena omitted from the simulation, such as HI-regions and infrared radiation from HII-regions, although these are invisible to the naked eye.
The results show that these kinds of vividly visual and engaging simulations have the potential to provide new disciplinary knowledge for reflective learners in the field of astronomy. Such learning can be characterized as attaining a better appreciation of the disciplinary affordances of the representations used in the simulation. As a conclusion we will discuss how such engagement could open the way for astronomy students to learn more meaningfully about the structure and complexity of the Universe.
Bailey, J. M. (2011). Astronomy Education Research: Developmental History of the Field and Summary of the Literature.
Bailey, J. M., & Slater, T. F. (2003). A Review of Astronomy Education Research. Astronomy Education Review (AER), 2(2), 45. 198
Bretones, P. S., & 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), AAS.
Fredlund, T., Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2012). Exploring the role of physics representations: an illustrative example from students sharing knowledge about refraction. European Journal of Physics, 33(3).
Gibbs, G. R. (2002). Qualitative Data Analysis: Explorations with NVivo: Open University Press.
Hansen, J. A., Barnett, M., MaKinster, J. G., & Keating, T. (2004a). The impact of three-dimensional computational modeling on student understanding of astronomical concepts: a quantitative analysis. International Journal of Science Education, 26(11), 1378.
Hansen, J. A., Barnett, M., MaKinster, J. G., & Keating, T. (2004b). The impact of three-dimensional computational modeling on student understanding of astronomy concepts: a qualitative analysis. International Journal of Science Education, 26(13), 1575.
Lelliott, A., & Rollnick, M. (2010). Big Ideas: A review of astronomy education research 1974--2008. International Journal of Science Education, 32(13), 1799.
Molina, A., Redondo, M., Bravo, C., & Ortega, M. (2004) Using Simulation, Collaboration, and 3D Visualization for Design Learning: A Case Study in Domotics. Vol. 3190. Cooperative Design, Visualization, and Engineering (pp. Springer Berlin / Heidelberg-171).
N.R.C. (2006). Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum.
Strauss, A. L., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. (2nd ed. ed.). London: Sage.
Williamson, V. M., & Abraham, M. R. (1995). The effects of computer animation on the particulate mental models of college chemistry students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(5), Wiley Subscription Services, Inc., A Wiley Company--534.
Cape Town, South Africa: SAARMSTE , 2013.