Fostering Interest in Science through Interactive Exploration of Astronomy What-If Simulations
As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative resources for use in a variety of settings. This project will advance knowledge in the design of interest triggers for science in immersive digital simulation learning games. When learners are interested in a topic, it can have a profound impact on the quality of their learning. Although much is known about how informal learning experiences can promote interest in STEM, much less research has addressed links between technology use and interest development. This Exploratory Pathways project will investigate (1) the impact of entertainment technology use by middle school learners on STEM interest development, (2) the design of interactive educational technologies created specifically to trigger interest in astronomy, and (3) informal learning resources for sustained interaction with STEM content over time. In particular, learners will have the opportunity to interactively explore the scientific consequences of considering alternative versions of Earth via "What if?" questions, such as "What if the earth had no moon?" or "What if the earth were twice its current size?". While using the simulations, learners will be invited to make observations and propose scientific explanations for what they see as different. Given recent discoveries of potentially habitable worlds throughout the Galaxy, such questions have high relevance to public discourse around space exploration, conditions necessary for life, and the long-term future of the human race. Studies will occur across three informal learning settings: museum exhibits, afterschool programs, and summer camps, and are driven by the following research questions: What technology-based triggers of interest have the strongest influence on interest? Which contextual factors are most important for supporting long-term interest development? And, what kinds of technology-based triggers are most effective for learners from audiences who are underrepresented in STEM? This research will result in an empirically tested approach for cultivating interest that will allow educators to leverage the "What if?" pedagogy in their own work, as well as downloadable materials suitable for use in both informal and formal learning settings.
Planned studies will identify features that are effective in triggering interest, with an emphasis on groups underrepresented in STEM, and elaborate on the importance of engaging learners in explanatory dialogues and in service of interest development. It is hypothesized that interacting in such novel ways can act as a trigger for interest in astronomy, physics, and potentially other areas of STEM. Design iterations will also investigate different forms of learning supports, such as guidance from facilitators, collaboration, and automated guidance available within the simulations, and identify how features vary with respect to learning contexts. Data collected will include interview and survey data to track interest development, measures of knowledge in astronomy and physics, and log files of simulation use to better understand how behaviors in the simulations align with stated interests. Results of the studies will advance the theoretical understanding of interest development and its relationship to interactive experiences, and will also have practical implications for the deployment of technology in informal settings by identifying features critical for triggering the interest of middle school learners. This project is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. This includes providing multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences, advancing innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments, and developing understandings of deeper learning by participants.