Evaluating Astronomy Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

The study is the first evaluation of the effectiveness of using virtual environments in digital planetariums for astronomy education at the formal college level. The study uses undergraduate students who view visualizations from interactive, real-time astronomy software as part of their regular lecture.


Students view visualizations either in their classroom at the Metropolitan State College of Denver (Denver, CO) or inside the Gates Planetarium at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (Denver, CO).

Research Design: 

This study uses a comparative research design to generate causal [experimental] evidence. Original data are collected through assessments of learning or achievement tests and survey research [structured interviews]. Assessment of student learning is done via pre- and post multiple choice tests and weekly curriculum multiple choice quizzes. One-on-one oral interviews were also conducted in the first year of the study to help diagnose student misconceptions in our study topics. In addition to analyzing student weekly quiz results in the control versus experimental groups, the study also has obtained a broad spectrum of demographic variables from the subjects. This allows for cross-correlational studies over multiple variables, with gender being the most prominent factor.


The preliminary findings show that students do benefit when spatially-dependent astronomy concepts are presented in the immersive virtual environment of the digital planetarium. In six out of seven study areas, students showed an overall increase in comprehension of approximately 8% to 12%. Perhaps the most significant finding is a greater performance gain seen in women compared to men. The statistical significance of these preliminary results is on average only in the 80% confidence range, and we are continuing to take data to drive down the uncertainties.

Publications & Presentations: 

K. C. Yu, K. Sahami, & G. Denn, 2010, "Student Ideas about Kepler's Laws and Planetary Orbital Motions," Astronomy Education Review, 9, 010108, DOI:10.3847/AER2009069.

K. C. Yu, 2008, “Fulldome Planetariums for Immersive Virtual Astronomy Education,” International Planetarium Society Proceedings, 2008 IPS Meeting, Chicago, Illinois, June 27–July 2, 2008.

K. C. Yu, & K. Sahami, 2008, “Astronomy Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments,” EPO and a Changing World, C. Garmany, M. Gibbs, & J.W. Moody (Eds.), ASP Conference Series, Vol. 389, proceedings of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific meeting, Sep 5–7, 2007, Chicago, IL, pp. 259–260.

K. C. Yu, & K. Sahami, 2007, “Digital Planetariums for Astronomy Education,” ASTC Dimensions, November/December 2007, pp. 11–12.

K. C. Yu, & K. Sahami, 2007, “Visuospatial Astronomy Education in Immersive Digital Planetariums,” Communicating Astronomy with the Public 2007 Proceedings, L. L. Christensen, M. Zoulias, I. Robson (Eds.), pp. 242–245.

K. C. Yu, & K. Sahami, 2006, “The ALIVE Project: Astronomy Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments,” poster, Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering PI meeting, 2006 meeting, Dec 7–8, 2006, Washington, DC.

Other Products: 

The curriculum for the introductory undergraduate astronomy course was modified to help address student misconceptions. A test bank of more than 200 questions was developed to help gauge student learning, understanding, and retention in the astronomy topics of the study. A series of visualization modules for the planetarium software was also designed to help explain the study topics.