Thinking Spatially about the Universe - A Physical and Virtual Laboratory for Middle School Science

Project: Research project

Project Details


Critical breakthroughs in science (e.g., Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, and Watson & Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA), originated with those scientists' ability to think spatially, and research has shown that spatial ability correlates strongly with likelihood of entering a career in STEM. This project will develop and study three week-long middle school lab units designed to teach spatial abilities using a blend of physical and virtual (computer-based) models. 'ThinkSpace' labs will help students explore 3-dimensional astronomical phenomena (moon phases and eclipses; planetary systems around stars other than the Sun; and celestial motions within the broader universe) in ways that will support both understanding of these topics and a more general spatial ability. Students will learn both through direct work with the lab unit interface and through succeeding discussions with their peers. The research program will determine which elements in the labs best promote both spatial skills and understanding of core ideas in astronomy; and how then to optimize interactive dynamic visualizations toward these ends. Virtual models of the sky and universe will be created using WorldWide Telescope, a free visualization tool that runs on desktop computers, tablets, and mobile devices. The ThinkSpace lab materials will be available at no cost on popular curriculum-sharing sites, including PBS Learning Media and BetterLesson.

The ThinkSpace team will address two main research questions: 1) How can spatial tasks that blend physical and virtual models be embedded into a STEM curriculum in ways that lead to significant improvements in spatial thinking? and 2) How can practitioners optimize design of interactive, dynamic visualizations for teaching spatially complex concepts? The first year of the study will examine two of the lab units with four teachers and about 320 students. The second year of the study will be similar. The third year of the study will test all three lab units in 10 classrooms. Over this study, each week-long ThinkSpace Lab will be formatively tested, using pre/post written assessments of astronomy content and spatial thinking; pre/post interviews with students; and in-class video of students using the lab activities. Scaffolded learning designs will support students in making connections between different spatial views of the phenomena, and will guide them to construct explanations and argue from evidence about how various phenomena (e.g. moon phases) arise in the real Universe, as Next Generation Science Standards demand. The impact of the ThinkSpace labs will be felt far beyond astronomy because the learning models being tested can transfer to other fields where spatial models are critical, and findings on optimization of dynamic visualizations can help to inform instructional design in the age of online learning. The Discovery Research K-12 program (DRK-12) seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by preK-12 students and teachers, through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools (RMTs). Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects.

Effective start/end date7/1/156/30/20


  • National Science Foundation: $1,387,378.00


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