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At UW, Future Teachers Wade Through Molecules to Learn Science Principles

February 26, 2016
people's hands and feet silhoutted against a background of red and white spheres
UW students stand amid virtual molecules in the Shell 3-D Visualization Center as part of a new method to teach the principle of density to future elementary school teachers. (UW Photo)

Take a graduated cylinder.

Pour in maple syrup, salt water, regular water and some vegetable oil.

Describe what you think will happen.

Despite using this, and other engaging, hands-on activities to teach the principle of density to future elementary educators, Alan Buss routinely found that his students struggled to explain the concept. But with access to the University of Wyoming’s Shell 3-D Visualization Center, expert assistance from center intern Kyle Summerfield and a research sabbatical, Buss has created a novel, immersive experience that places future students in the middle of the concept they are studying.

“One of the affordances of the CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) is that it allows us to immerse students, not just visually, but physically,” says Buss, associate professor of elementary and early childhood education. “That’s where its power really lies. It’s a kinesthetic experience.”

That experience places students in the midst of two of the substances used in the cylinder assignment.

“The idea is to shrink the users down to the size of molecules, so that they can see what density is, which is the arrangement of the molecules and how tightly packed they are, as well as the weight of the molecules themselves,” Buss says. “It’s that combination of factors.”

Students are able to witness -- and manipulate -- that interaction in three scenarios: water molecules alone, vegetable oil molecules alone, and an interaction of the two together.

“Hopefully, it’s an experience that not just helps them better understand density, but it’s also an experience that becomes an anchor in their memory,” Buss says of his goals for students of all ages.

Seeds of the project were planted in the late 1990s, when Buss visited a virtual reality cave at the University of Michigan. A tour of UW’s Shell 3-D Visualization Center shortly after it opened sparked renewed interest in exploring the potential of using immersive technology in teacher education.

“I toured the facility a couple of years ago, but it took some time for me to actually congeal the ideas as to what I wanted to do,” Buss says.

Watching students in UW’s “Physical Science in Elementary Schools” course continue to struggle to explain density and buoyancy as concepts eventually provided the focus for the exploration that spanned the summer and fall of 2015.

man standing outside and talking to a group of people

Alan Buss, associate professor of elementary and early childhood education, led development of the new three-dimensional learning experience. (UW Photo)

Software Challenges

A clear, early challenge was a technical one: creating the environment Buss envisioned using gaming software. He soon learned that the process was far more complex than initially expected. Becoming proficient at using the software required practice following interactive videos targeting beginners, and having to revisit those basic tutorials when things didn’t go as planned.

“It really helped me empathize with my students, especially as I will be asking them to learn new software this semester,” he says of the unexpected challenges that arose in the process of learning and creating at a “beginner” level.

Buss also discovered that even having a solid background in chemistry was not enough to prepare him to break down and replicate virtually the make-up and movements of seemingly basic concepts, such as a water molecule.

“It seemed simple to me as an idea,” he says. “That’s when I really started thinking more about the modeling process and what learning really is. Learning really is about refining our mental models.”

Part of that process involved asking fundamental questions about goals, for himself in developing the environment, and for the learners who will experience it.

“I also was asking myself, ‘How accurate do I want my models to be in this experience?’” Buss recalls. “Do I want them (the molecules) to just be blobs, or do I want them to somehow represent other views of what water molecules look like?

“How deep do I go? Do I then have protons and neutrons and electrons whizzing around for each of these atoms -- or do I just make them static? I soon realized that computationally … I had to simplify.”

Gaining Summerfield as a technical partner in the project helped Buss reach a functional version of his vision. Summerfield had the skills to bring some of the more challenging concepts from the available computing resources, enhancing the interactivity of the experience and working with ultimate limitations.

For example, while Buss originally envisioned users “wading” into a pool of water molecules at eye/ear level, the computer became bogged down with only 300 virtual molecules in the room. Summerfield helped to tweak the system to accept around 600 molecules, allowing future users to interact with a pool that rises somewhere between the knee and ankle.

New Opportunities

Despite having to accommodate system limitations, and make tough choices related to personal capacity, the result is an environment that successfully demonstrates how molecules of both substances act and allows people to experience the concept of density in completely new ways.

As fascinating as the technology itself may be, the transformation potential for future university and K-12 students is even more important. It also represents a new opportunity for Buss to understand how students test, experience and revise their conceptual models.

“It’s probably been one of the most exciting things that has come out of this, because it’s changed the curriculum and what I want to do with my research,” he says. “It’s not just their (students’) understanding of density, but their modeling of density.”

Long interested in technology-enhanced modeling in learning, Buss has a new avenue for testing and exploring how it might affect how learners revise and expand those models.

“How are they modeling it? How are they representing it? How does that representation change as a result of going through this set of experiences?” Those are some of the questions that Buss looks forward to exploring in future research.

While supporting the learning of undergraduate education majors was a primary driver of this project, other significant opportunities are emerging. One is the potential to explore how to take a version of this learning experience to K-12 students and others who cannot visit UW, using virtual reality headsets or a mobile CAVE. Another is the opportunity to collaborate with scientists and science educators, at UW and elsewhere.



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Chad Baldwin

Institutional Communications

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Email: cbaldwin@uwyo.edu

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