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  • British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 33 No 4 2002 000000

    British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2002.Published by Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

    Science learning in virtual environments: a descriptive study

    Jorge Trindade, Carlos Fiolhais and Leandro Almeida

    Jorge Trindade is at the High School for Technology and Management in Guarda, Portugal. Carlos Fiolhaisis in the Physics Department at the University of Coimbra and Leandro Almeida is in the PsychologyDepartment and the University of Minho. Address for correspondence: Jorge A. Trindade, High Schoolfor Technology and Management, Polytechnic Institute of Guarda, P-6300 Guarda, Portugal.

    AbstractUsually, students learn more if the method of instruction matches theirlearning style. Since Physics and Chemistry deal with three-dimensional (3-D)objects, the ability to visualize and mentally manipulate shapes is very helpfulin their learning. In fact, much of what Physics and Chemistry students know takes the form of images. However, little attention has been given to thepedagogical effectiveness of visual stimuli in those disciplines. Computers arebeing increasingly used as teaching tools. The new approaches include simu-lations, multimedia presentations and, more recently, virtual environments.Computer-based worlds are useful to visualize physical and chemical processesallowing for better conceptual understanding. Since 3-D virtual environ-ments need to be explored and evaluated in science education, we have createda virtual environment (Virtual Water) for studying phases of matter, phasetransitions and atomic orbitals at the final year of high school and first year ofuniversity levels. Based on that work, we discuss the implications of visuallearning in designing strategies to cater for differences in learning modes.Our study indicates that 3-D virtual environments may help students withhigh spatial aptitude to acquire better conceptual understandings. However,only some parameters (interactivity, navigation and 3-D perception) haveshown to be relevant and only for some topics. On the other hand, stereoscopicvisualizations do not seem to be relevant, with the exception of crystallinestructures.

    IntroductionWe all learn through a variety of mechanisms and we learn more if the mode ofinstruction matches our learning style. Gardner (1983) and Felder and Silverman(1988) have studied different learning styles and have developed schemes for deter-mining the preferred learning and teaching styles. According to Gardner (1983), among

  • the various natural learning styles the visual-spatial style is prominent (ie, understand-ing the world through the eyes and expressing ideas through graphical arts).

    Felder and Silverman (1988) have developed a scheme which classifies the learningstyles preferred by engineering teachers and students into five groups (sensory/intuitive, visual/verbal, inductive/deductive, active/reflective, sequential/global). Theyconcluded that, in general, the teaching style of most teachers does not match thelearning style of most students: students learn better from processes which are sensory,visual, inductive, and active, while lectures tend to be verbal, deductive, and passive.

    Visual-spatial aptitude is the ability to form and control a mental image. On the otherhand, visual-spatial understanding is the ability to juxtapose, manipulate, and orientan object mentally and to create mind structures from written and verbal directions. It has been subdivided into two parts: spatial orientation, concerning the awareness or appreciation of spatial relations and image constancy; and spatial visualization,concerning mental manipulations into other visual patterns (Lord, 1985).

    The visual-spatial aptitude has been strongly linked to academic mastery of several sciences. For example, when perceptual-spatial tests have been given to 64 eminent scientists they all showed superior scores in visual-spatial accuracy (Roe,1952). Siemonhowski and MacKnight (1971) gave a series of spatial tests to a groupof college undergraduates (half of them were science majors, while the other half werein non-science, liberal arts courses). They found that not only was the science groupscore much higher on the visual-spatial measures but also that they performedsignificantly better than their liberal arts colleagues. Since then, spatial aptitude hasbeen identified in good students of Physics (Pallrand and Seeber, 1984) and Chemistry(Baker and Taylor, 1972).

    Visual-spatial learners may dislike traditional schooling because of its overemphasis onlecturing, rote memorization, drill and practice exercises. Various authors have alertededucators to the need for students involvement other than simply listening to lecturesor reading books (Roe, 1952; Arnheim, 1969; Baker and Taylor, 1972; Pallrand andSeeber, 1984; Lord, 1985, 1987; Mathewson, 1999).

    Motivated by these problems, we have built a virtual reality program to support thestudy of some concepts of Physics and Chemistry at the final year high school and firstyear university levelsVirtual Water. We have tested the software with students, look-ing for the relationship between visual-spatial ability and conceptual understanding.

    Imagery in scienceImagery experiments focus on generating new scientific facts by means of mentalimages, propositional processes or both (Miller, 1996; Resnick, 1983). Many physicistsused imaginary worlds to get new insights: Maxwells demon, Einsteins train andHeisenbergs microscope have become part of the teaching of thermodynamics, specialrelativity and quantum mechanics, respectively. Others examples are Galileos thought

    2 British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 33 No 4 2002

    British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2002.

  • experiment on falling bodies of different weights, Faradays visualization of lines of forcesurrounding charged objects and magnetic poles, Kekuls dream of the cyclic structureof benzene and Gamows tale about swimming in a pool of water and alcohol molecules(Gamow and Stannard, 1999). The refinement of mental experiments is supported by external graphical representations (Reiner, 1998). If visual-spatial cognition is sofundamental in science, it should also be important in teaching science. Unlike theformal manipulations so often used in teaching, thought experiments capitalize onthe human capacity for imagery and allow learners to see dynamic processes andtherefore to construct more perfect and more permanent understandings.

    Imagery in Physics and Chemistry teaching may be justified for several reasons:

    a) First of all, its sensorial directness.b) Imagery experiments are likely to play a major role in strategies to discard

    previous misconceptions.c) Using images, a teacher is talking science, ie, emphasizes relevant concepts and


    In Quantum Physics and Chemistry the need for visualizing invisible entities presentsa problem in high school and college teaching. Current models used to visualize themicroscopic world have proven to be too difficult for students. In fact, scientists usemolecular dynamics to explain chemical kinetics, gas laws, and reaction equilibrium,and orbitals to describe the electronic clouds in atoms and molecules, but studentshave problems relating the macroscopic observations to the underlying molecular andatomic behavior.

    There are a variety of areas in which students misconceptions are produced in thestudy of quantal phenomena. Students have only seen 2-D representations and someof them are unable to visualize a scientific model in 3-D. Difficulties arise sometimesfrom an inability to mentally rotate the 3-D model, a lack of depth perception, or alimited sense of perspective. A student who is not a visual learner or has problemsthinking in 3-D is clearly at disadvantage.

    Computer technologies for visualizationGraphics is one of the major outputs of modern computer technologies. Indeed, staticand dynamic representations provide a powerful language tool when words and gesturesare poor. Markham (1998) argued that graphical simulations, which accompany experi-mental activities, allow for mental imagery and associative knowledge. The followingeffective strategies have been found for teaching students with visual-spatial aptitudes(Silverman, 1998):

    Use computers to present visual materials. Use visual aids, such as overhead projection. Emphasize creativity, imagination, new insights and new approaches rather than

    passive learning. Group together gifted visual-spatial learners.

    Science learning in virtual environments 3

    British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2002.

  • Use manipulative materials to allow hands-on experience. Have students discover their own methods of problem solving. Avoid rote memorization, using inductive approaches. Find out what students have already learned before teaching them new facts. Emphasize mastery of higher-level concepts rather than perfection of simpler concepts. Engage students in independent studies or group projects which involve problem-

    finding and problem-solving. Allow students to construct, draw and create visual representations.

    Advances in computer technology have lead to various high-quality educational toolsincluding interactive programs, multimedia presentations and, more recently, virtualreality. Virtual reality is a computer interface characterized by a high degree of im-mersion, plausibility, and interaction, making the user believe that he is actually insidethe artificial environment. In a perfect virtual environment, a user would be completelyunable to determine whether he is experiencing a computer simulation or the realthing