3-D Astronomy Project Page

Project Lead: I. Song


Astronomical concepts are fundamentally 3-D while textbook illustrations are lackluster 2-D models. We aim to develop Scientifically Accurate, Immersive, Engaging, Visually Stunning, Modular 3-D simulation platforms and simulations to enhance students' understanding of challenging astronomical concepts. These models will be released publicly under the CC-BY license.

Traditional STEM education often relies on 2-D illustrations to depict complex 3-D real-world scenarios, resulting in challenges that hinder comprehensive understanding or misconceptions. The discrepancy between textbook concepts, problem representations, and real-world applications can lead to students' growing frustration and a diminishing motivation to pursue STEM fields, particularly in Astronomy. We are actively engaged in an interdisciplinary project to address these challenges and bridge the gap between conventional teaching methods and the dynamic needs of modern learners. This project is a collaborative effort between prominent institutions, including the UGA Physics & Astronomy Department, College of Engineering, College of Veterinary Medicine, and GSU Physics & Astronomy Department. It is led by Dr. Weliweriya and Dr. Song, two scientists/educators with a shared vision for revolutionizing STEM education through 3D simulations.

The primary focus of our project is developing a series of “Scientifically Correct, Immersive, Engaging, Visually Stunning, and Modular” 3-D astronomical simulations. These simulations are designed to enhance students' understanding of fundamental astrophysical concepts. Our vision encompasses about 30 topics where 3D simulations can significantly augment students' comprehension and generate heightened interest. For example, one of our simulations can create an accurate model of the Sun, Earth, and Moon in their orbits, enabling students to simulate solar and lunar eclipses.

Our simulations are adaptable and accessible, catering to various educational settings. Furthermore, these simulations are purpose-built to teach specific astronomical concepts. Once a 3-D model is developed, it can be deployed in multiple representations including traditional VR, augmented reality, 2-D dynamic web simulation, etc. Simulation-related tasks can be assigned as homework or in-class activities. For example, with a simple QR code displayed in the classroom, students can easily engage with these simulations, facilitating a deeper understanding of complex subjects. We are also actively working to integrate augmented reality (AR) capabilities, making these simulations available through smartphones. Our ultimate goal is to develop interactive immersive simulations that can be assigned as practical labs, ensuring a comprehensive, hands-on learning experience. As we proceed with this project, assessing our simulations' effectiveness is paramount. This assessment will encompass several critical factors, including testing students' understanding of concepts, measuring user engagement, collecting valuable user feedback, comparing the efficacy of our simulations with other instructional methods, and evaluating their technical performance. In addition, we will compare different instruction modes (e.g., real-time interaction between instructor and students in the virtual world, passive watching a 3-D movie by students with/without the instructor's audio guidance, students' self-exploratory play with a model, etc.) and assess their effectiveness.

Awe-inspiring high-quality simulations with interactive and intuitive user controls can captivate students allowing them to gain invaluable insights into the related astronomical phenomena. These immersive simulations can enhance students' understanding of the content by improving their ability to visualize the otherwise challenging content (Nooriafshar, Mehryar, & Williams 2004). This approach allows for active and flexible engagement in astronomy education. Engaging more senses in the learning process can enhance the understanding and retention of difficult topics (Shapiro, Lawrence, & Stolz 2019).

Goals: (1) identify distractors for the misconception, (2) identify misconception models behind wrong answers, (3) eventually improve education.

Advantages: (0) Engaging + Immersive environment, (1) Wow factor, (2) increased motivation, (3) increased interest in STEM.

To correctly describe the project's technical scope, this project is not using only the VR environment. The VR environment is designed for projecting objects into the whole 4$\pi$ steradian field-of-view or 2$\pi$ steradian in the case of a hemispheric projection limited by the horizon. In such a VR projection, scaling becomes an issue in a model with a physically correct scale. For example, simulating solar/lunar eclipses with a scientifically correct scale makes the field of interest too small to be meaningful. Therefore, we can consider using a zoomed-in 3D simulation environment instead of using the straightforward VR projection. The eventual goal of this project is to develop a “Scientifically Correct, Immersive, Engaging, Visually Stunning, Modular” 3-D simulation platform and simulations. Therefore, our project is best described as 3-D Immersive Astronomy Simulations for Learning.

To read the list of topics, you need to log in.
Here is one example topic showing the development of Virtual Night Sky. About 24 other topics are being developed like this one.

Created 3D models can be ported easily to other types such as 2D images, Augmented Reality (AR) simulations, or webpages. AR and WebGL approaches can open up more topics that can be used in the classroom because of their wider accessibility (i.e., smartphone and iPad). The above table of topics can be expanded or supplemented with more topics that can benefit from having AR simulations that are easily accessible and less disruptive to classroom flows.

A Sample WebGL model

Check this embedded WebGL rendering of the Sun-Earth-Moon system created with Unity. WebGL versions can be played in any modern web browser. Click the image to see the WebGL animation.

This model of the Sun-Earth-Moon system is based on the accurate NASA ephemeris. The right mouse button can tilt/rotate the scene, the middle mouse button scroll adjusts a zoom level. Click the image below to access the model. In this version, the Earth and Moon were not rendered. Replacing the simple spheroid model of the Sun (and Earth + Moon) with real images can be done easily using Solar System texture images from NASA.

An AR model created in Unity

This AR version of the lunar phase cycle was made by Shameer (GSU).