space sciences

Astronomy Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments (ALIVE)

Astronomy Learning in Immersive Virtual Environments (ALIVE)

Immersive digital planetariums are touted as powerful tools for education. However, in 2005, there had not been many studies to find out how truly effective they are. Ka Chun Yu, in collaboration with Kamran Sahami at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, received funding from the National Science Foundation for a five-year project (NSF REC 0529522, DRL 0529522 Supplemental) to study how college-level astronomy classes can be improved using scientific visualizations in digital planetariums.

The study focused on seven topics commonly taught in introductory astronomy classes: phases of the moon, seasons and length of day, Kepler's Laws and orbital motions, scale and structure of the solar system, outer planet moon systems, and distances to the stars and galaxies. Interviews were held with incoming students so the team could pinpoint the misconceptions students had about these topics. The information helped them develop a series of test questions to evaluate how much astronomy knowledge was gained and retained.

After that, visualization models for each of the seven teaching topics were developed, and the introductory astronomy classes were divided into three groups. Group I saw no visualizations, Group II saw visualizations in the classroom, and Group III traveled to Gates Planetarium at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to see immersive visualizations within the digital dome.

The ALIVE collaboration uncovered alternative conceptions about astronomical topics (Yu et al. 2010). More generally, it showed that digital fulldome planetariums are effective at improving learning gains, especially when compared to the same visual content shown on non-immersive flat-screens in a regular classroom. In addition, the dome may be reducing the cognitive load of viewers for topics that require spatial understanding (Yu et al. 2015). Our studies also revealed that wide fields of view and large screens in planetariums may be increasing viewer attention, resulting in improved learning (Yu et al. 2016) and affirmed the educational value of the Powers of Ten-style zooms and physical solar system scale models (Yu et al. 2017b). The increased attention due to optic flow stimulating a viewer’s peripheral vision may have implications for current and future generations of head-mounted displays that are used for virtual reality (Yu et al. 2017a).


Yu, K. C., K. Sahami, V. Sahami, L. Sessions, and G. Denn. 2017a. Group immersive education with digital fulldome planetariums. Pages 238–239 in E. S. Rosenberg, D. M. Krum, Z. Wartell, B. Mohler, S. V. Babu, F. Steinicke, and V. Interrante, eds. 2017 IEEE Virtual Reality (VR) Proceedings, March 18–22, 2017. Los Angeles, CA.

Yu, K. C., K. Sahami, and J. Dove. 2017b. Learning about scale of the solar system using digital planetarium visualizations. American Journal of Physics 85(7):550–556. DOI: 10.1119/1.4984812.

Yu, K. C., K. Sahami, G. Denn, V. Sahami, and L. Sessions. 2016. Immersive planetarium visualizations for teaching solar system moon concepts to undergraduates. Journal of Astronomy and Earth Science Education 3(2):93–110. DOI: 10.19030/jaese.v3i2.9843.

Yu, K. C., K. Sahami, V. Sahami, and L. Sessions. 2015. Using a digital planetarium for teaching seasons to undergraduates. Journal of Astronomy and Earth Science Education 2(1):33–50. DOI: 10.19030/jaese.v2i1.9276.

YYu, K. C., K. Sahami, and G. Denn. 2010. Student ideas about Kepler’s laws and planetary orbital motions. Astronomy Education Review 9(1). DOI: 10.3847/AER2009069.


Ka Chun Yu, PhD

Assistant Curator of Space Science

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