, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 261-275

The Virtual Solar System Project: Developing Conceptual Understanding of Astronomical Concepts Through Building Three-Dimensional Computational Models

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The Virtual Solar System (VSS) course described in this paper is one of the first attempts to integrate three-dimensional (3D) computer modeling as a central component of an introductory undergraduate astronomy course. Specifically, this study assessed the changes in undergraduate university students' understanding of astronomy concepts as a result of participating in an experimental introductory astronomy course in which the students constructed 3D models of different astronomical phenomena. In this study, we examined students' conceptual understanding concerning three foundational astronomical phenomena: the causes of lunar and solar eclipses, the causes of the Moon's phases, and the reasons for the Earth's seasons. Student interviews conducted prior to the course identified a range of student alternative conceptions previously identified in the literature regarding the dynamics and mechanics of the Solar System. A previously undocumented alternative conception to explain lunar eclipses is identified in this paper. The interviews were repeated at the end of the course in order to quantitatively and qualitatively assess any changes in student conceptual understanding. Generally, the results of this study revealed that 3D computer modeling can be a powerful tool in supporting student conceptualization of abstract scientific phenomena. Specifically, 3D computer modeling afforded students the ability to visualize abstract 3D concepts such as the line of nodes and transform them into conceptual tools, which in turn, supported the development of scientifically sophisticated conceptual understandings of many basic astronomical topics. However, there were instances where students' conceptual understanding was incomplete and frequently hybridized with their existing conceptions. These findings have significant bearing on when and in what domains 3D computer modeling can be used to support student conceptual understanding of astronomy concepts.