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Seeing Virtually: Toward a Vision of Teaching Physics in 3-D Space: 2202413

Principal Investigator: Matthew Anderson
CoPrincipal Investigator(s): Janet Bowers, Dustin Thoman
Organization: San Diego State University Foundation
NSF Award Information: Seeing Virtually: Toward a Vision of Teaching Physics in 3-D Space
One reason that students struggle in introductory physics classes, which are often key entry points for science, technology, engineering, and math majors, is that certain topics are difficult to mentally visualize and manipulate. For example, vectors and fields are challenging in their own right, and even more so when presented using static two-dimensional imagery. Conversely, in virtual reality where students are able to be present in a tactile environment and use familiar gestures to interact with objects, the potential for deeper learning is enhanced. The scope of this project involves developing virtual reality-based physics learning spaces in which students can explore models from multiple angles, manipulate the components, and interact with an instructor who is also engaged within the environment. A critical component of the design is inclusive access, as the platform does not require expensive or complicated equipment. All students will be able to participate from anywhere with nothing more than a smartphone and a desire to learn.

The goal of this project is to develop spatial computing environments that are specialized for undergraduate physics education. By leveraging expertise in educational research and state-of-the-art technologies, the team will prototype, iteratively develop, and optimize collaborative educational spaces where students can interact with three-dimensional renderings of physics phenomena and engage with each other and instructors in real time. The scope of this project involves (1) constructing three fundamental learning spaces: electric fields, magnetic fields, and electromagnetic waves, and (2) developing research-based theory regarding how virtual reality experiences can improve students’ learning gains. The spaces will include dynamic graphical elements relevant to the physics phenomenon, interaction tools to modify those phenomena, a live instructor who can assume a student’s perspective to see exactly what the student is viewing, and learning assessment measures. The students’ actions in these virtual environments and their learning gains will be studied in order to optimize the design and implementation of this novel approach. Access to the environment will be inclusive because it is platform-agnostic: while the instructor may use sophisticated tools, students can join with a tablet or smartphone. This will foster successful learning opportunities for all students, and particularly for underrepresented minorities and at-risk students. Findings will advance knowledge on embodied cognition in spatial computing learning environments by investigating the ways in which various composition elements and tasks engage students in deeper levels of visualization and conceptual understanding.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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