Virtual Reality in Astronomy 100

Scott Severson - Professor, Sonoma State University

Course Name : Astronomy 100 - Descriptive Astronomy

Project Abstract:
This project incorporates an immersive Virtual Reality (VR) experience in an introductory astronomy course for non-science majors. The VR activity addresses the spatial origins of astronomical phenomena. One example is the origin of eclipses and phases of the moon, a commonly observed yet often misunderstood astronomical phenomenon. The project includes a component to study the efficacy and the student attitudes of the VR activities. The study consists of splitting the population of the parent class into two comparable populations. One population completes a VR activity built upon the commercially-available application, Universe Sandbox 2. The other population completes an online activity from the Nebraska Astronomy Applet Project.

Keywords/Tags: Astronomy Education, Virtual Reality, Simulation, Lunar Phases, Eclipses

Instructional Delivery: The Virtual Reality activity is assigned within a large format lecture class. Students sign up for the Sonoma State University VITaL lab outside of class time, where they complete a VR activity with guidance from a student assistant.

Pedagogical Approaches: Lecture, Supplemental Instruction, Active/Inquiry-based Learning, Virtual Reality.

About the LIT Redesign (Stage 1)

OpenStax AstronomyBackground on the Redesign

Why Redesign your Course?

  • The course is taught as a large lecture class (N=125).
  • Several course concepts require students to build a mental model of spatial phenomena.
  • Understanding the origin of the Phases of the Moon is a well-known difficulty in introductory astronomy classes.
  • A successful mental model should allow students to go beyond rote memorization and use predictive power to answer deeper questions

High Demand/Low Success/Facilities Bottleneck Issues

  • The DFW rate in Introductory Astronomy at SSU is 14%
  • Large format lecture classes pose a challenge to have students physical interact with physical models of  phenomena.
  • The VITaL Lab on campus can be scheduled outside of class for students to complete VR activities

Course History / Background

  • The course is a lower-division General Education course.
  • Student interest in the material is high, and we serve 750-1000 students annually in all sections of the course
  • Astronomy 100 represents a chance for students to have an authentic science experience during their degree.
  • Large enrollment means we must look for innovative ways to deliver these experiences leveraging campus facilities: the observatory, the VITaL lab etc.

Astronomy 100 Syllabus Fall 2019.pdf

About the Students and Instructor(s) (Stage 2)

Student Characteristics

  • The course is a General Education B1 Science course and attracts primarily  non-science majors.
  • In the 2018-2019 Academic Year, 577 students were enrolled in ASTR 100.
    • 34% Male - 66% Female
    • 23% First Generation College Students
    • 39% Underrepresented Minority
    • Year:
      • FTFY: 22%
      • Sophomore: 44%
      • Junior: 27%
      • Senior: 7%

Advice I Give my Students to be Successful

  • Engage in the class from the beginning of the semester and build good study habits:
    • Complete the outside readings and assignments.
    • Review lecture notes weekly outside of class and connect to study guide to build meaning.
    • Find or create a study group and attend the optional Supplementary Instruction Sections
    • Attend Office hours, bringing specific questions you have as you construct mental models of course ideas.

Impact of Student Learning Outcomes/Objectives (SLOs) on Course Redesign

  • This specific re-design is centered on course concepts requiring students to build a mental model of spatial phenomena. These SLOs may be summarized thusly:
    • students will be able to use an understanding of the astronomical origin of phases of the moon to:
      • predict future Moon visibility and phase based on the current phase. (This may be used in future life to predict moon lighting conditions during upcoming nighttime events/camping trips)
      • describe the alignment of the Earth-Sun-Moon system that give rise to specific phases of the moon. (This is part of making sense of our place within the Cosmos).

Alignment of SLOs With LIT Redesign

  • The course redesign has VR activities based on allowing students to visualize and experiment with the conditions that lead to these observable astronomical phenomena.
  • These phenomena are some of the ideas students score most poorly on when taking exams. This is due, in part, to student's reliance on "rote memorization" which does not provide the same predictive power as developing the correct mental model

Assessments Used to Measure Students' Achievement of SLOs

Accessibility, Affordability, and Diversity Accessibility

  • The parent course, ASTR 100, has been developed with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to provide an inclusive classroom allowing multiple pathways to course SLOs. In addition, the course has adopted a no-cost OER textbook: OpenStax Astronomy

About the Instructor

  • Professor Scott Severson is the Chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sonoma State University. His interests include: 
    • Enriching the academic lives of Sonoma State University students through courses and research

      Mentoring the next generation of scientists, engineers and educators

      Recruiting and training a diverse population of students

      Enhancing the scientific literacy of society

      Inclusion of innovative teaching practices in the classroom

    • Development of next-generation astronomical adaptive optics systems

      Development of Sonoma State University observational capabilities

      Astronomical instrumentation (with particular emphasis on the near-infrared and adaptive optics)

      High spatial-resolution astronomy including the central regions of galaxies and planetary science

      Time domain astronomy, measurements of transient phenomena in the universe

LIT Redesign Planning (Stage 3)

Implementing the Redesigned Course What aspects of your course have you redesigned?

  • The course now includes an assigned VR activity.
  • Students complete our custom activities outside of class by using our VITaL VR space

    There is an introductory activity (an orientation to VR)

  • This is followed by an exploration of the spatial origins of the phases of the Moon and eclipses.

Student using Virtual Reality to explore Phases of the MoonStudent using Virtual Reality to explore Phases of the Moon

Describe the class size What technology is being used?

  • Astronomy 100 is taught in class sizes of around 125 students, we offer three sections per semester
  • We use the SSU VITaL lab to schedule student use of HTC Vive VR systems
  • We have implemented faculty-designed astronomical learning modules within the extensible Universe Sandbox 2 commercially available software.

Screenshot showing VR controller being used to move the Moon around the Earth Screenshot showing VR controller being used to move the Moon around the Earth

What professional development activities have you participated during your course redesign?

Which Additional Resources Were Needed for the Redesign?

  • This work is in collaboration with colleagues at Sonoma State University and San Diego State University: Astronomy Faculty and Academic Technology Staff

Astronomy 100 Syllabus Spring 2020.pdf

LIT Results and Findings (Stage 4)

LIT Redesign Impact on Teaching and Learning

  • The course redesign places emphasis on bringing unique tools to construct mental models of some of the most challenging content in ASTR 100.
  • As we describe below, students found the newly designed activities to be enjoyable and motivating.
  • Student achievement on our pre/post survey showed larger gains for the VR activity than for the standard web-activity.
  • The specific grade distribution for the class pre and post redesign shows potential that these interventions may improve DFW rates in the post redesign. 

Assessment Findings

  • The following is the Grade Distribution for the course in an offering before and after the course redesign.
  • The course enrollments were similar allowing easy side-by-side comparison.
  • The distributions were similar, but with slightly elevated B and C grades and decrease in the overall DFW rate. This is best shown in the following figure.
  • The decrease in DFW rate from 16.3% to 11.2% is precisely the goal for interventions such as this. These results may be indicative of success.

Student Feedback

  • The results of the student attitudinal surveys showed that students self reported enjoyment and motivation following the newly designed activities improved over the standard web-based activity.

Students Learning Gains

  • The results of the content survey from Stage 2 above shows greater learning gains post the VR intervention than the equivalent non-VR intervention

Lessons Learned & Redesign Tips

Teaching Tips

  • We found the development of VR activities and the careful design of their effectiveness to be challenging and rewarding. Intentional redesign around trouble spots in student learning is always a good idea, but the development with VR activities shows enough early hits at efficacy to be considered a useful tool

Course Redesign Obstacles and Sustainability

  • Inclusion of hardware reliant activities with staffing concerns must be made carefully, and we still consider our solution to be heavily dependent on these resources.
  • The LIT redesign will continue beyond the funding period as long as the hardware and Virtual Learning lab spaces can be supported by the administration.

Instructor Reflection

  • The Lab Innovations with Technology program provided a strong CSU Course Redesign Professional Learning Community with excellent facilitation. Plans are underway to finish the assessment of our activities and publish the findings of our course redesign activity.