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November 14, 2016

'MEteor' teaches students about astrophysics (Image 4)

A student uses "MEteor," an interactive computer simulation, at the Orlando Science Center. After launching an asteroid, the student walks across the simulation field to predict the asteroid’s path to the target. The tracking circle shows the participant’s position; however, a planet’s gravitational field has caused the asteroid to accelerate and curve around the planet.

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In an effort to inspire greater numbers of young people to become astronomers and embrace learning science, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I) have developed a new computer simulation called "MEteor" that has children use both their bodies and their minds while they learn about how objects move in space.

"MEteor" is a mixed-reality--the merging of virtual reality with the physical world--computer simulation that teaches middle school students concepts of physics, such as planetary motion and gravitational acceleration, by having them physically act the part of an asteroid traveling through space.

Robb Lindgren, a professor of curriculum and instruction at U of I and principal investigator on the project, says there’s a lot of potential with these types of experiences to motivate students to pursue science education at the primary through university levels and to undertake science careers.

Lindgren's research is focused on the emerging field of embodied learning, a blending of physical activity and computer interaction with instruction that's based on the theory that nearly everything people learn and know is grounded in their bodies and the physical world.

"Unfortunately, science instruction has typically not gotten science students up and moving--until now," says Lindgren. "These types of fully immersive experiences have the potential to transform students’ identities when it comes to how they see themselves related to the profession of science."

In a study by Lindgren and colleagues that compared the impact of the immersive, mixed-reality version of "MEteor" to a version that students used on a standard desktop computer, the researchers found that the students who participated in the mixed-reality simulation showed significant gains in their understanding of physics, higher levels of engagement and a more positive attitude toward science, as well as enjoyed the lessons significantly more than the students who used the desktop version.

The researchers also gave students in each group a set of challenging college-level questions to answer about concepts of force and motion that were addressed in the simulation. The students who participated in the full-body simulation scored significantly higher on the assessment, "adopting more expert-like knowledge of science concepts" than their counterparts, according to the study.

Says Lindgren, "I think we showed in this study that there are significant advantages to embodied interaction in instructional environments if we want to create a generation of students who are interested in and knowledgeable about science." He also says he believes that more research and experimentation with these kinds of immersive, interactive environments is important to increase the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce.

The "MEteor" project is funded by a $1.4 million Advancing Informal STEM Learning grant from the National Science Foundation (grant DRL 11-14621).

To learn more about this research, see the U of I news story Seventh-graders learn astrophysics through mixed-reality computer simulation. (Date image taken: 2013; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: Nov. 14, 2016) [Image 4 of 4 related images. Back to Image 1.]

Credit: Used with permission from Robb Lindgren; photo by L. Brian Stauffer


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