Teach science students to think in 3D

Teach science students to think in 3D

COLONY – A physics professor has created a way for students to hold the invisible in the palm of their hand, manipulating magnetic fields and electric charges to see how they work.

Using augmented reality on a touch screen, they can see a 3D image and move it around with their hands.

It’s a new way to teach spatial reasoning, a skill that many people lack.

When confronted with a classic line drawing of a molecule, with arrows to show its step-by-step changes, they cannot imagine it in three dimensions.

“We say, ‘imagine it in your head,'” said Michele McColgan, professor of physics at Siena College. “Most students don’t.”

This can lead many students, especially women, to drop out of science and math-related majors in college. Internationally, women perform worse in spatial reasoning than men, which McColgan says may be related to how society encourages play. Many students learn from toys , Lego, certain video games… activities more often presented to boys.

But for both genders, spatial reasoning is a teachable skill, McColgan said. She thinks young students – long before college – should start working with augmented reality so they can see how science and math work in three dimensions.

She just won a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand on the work she and several students have done to create augmented reality images for many basic science concepts.

“What he’s doing is opening it up so we don’t lose STEM students,” she said, referring to science, technology, engineering and math.

McColgan started using her augmented reality teaching in a special middle school program she taught. The students learned so easily that she thought, “Why don’t I do this in class?

So she took him to her upper-level electric field class, which is full of juniors and seniors. Surely, she thought, they’d developed spatial reasoning to get this far in college science classes. But as she described slicing a cylinder, it was clear the students didn’t understand.

“They weren’t able to visualize math,” she said. “They were like, ‘What are you talking about?'”

With the augmented reality program, they understood in a few moments what usually took a whole class period to explain.

Other teachers have taken notice. A professor of neuroscience asked for the augmented reality of molecules.

“The neuroscience professor was like, ‘My students never seem to understand this.’ He said they just couldn’t visualize it,” McColgan said.

So physics student Enzo Morina and other students spent the summer creating a program, showing the concept of an action potential in a neuron.

“You can’t see that, because it’s in a neuron,” Morina said, as a neuron reacted to polarization and depolarization – a dry topic made much more engaging when ions started coming out of the neuron during depolarization.

Now the teacher has asked for a whole series of visualizations, to help with much of the lesson.

Morina became a fan of visualizations during a physics class, during which he realized something about his own spatial reasoning.

“It was awful,” he said. “Now it’s much better.”

Everyone in his class did better once they saw physics in action virtually, he said.

The system could soon arrive in high schools. Chemistry graduate Natalie Stagnitti plans to teach high school science after graduation. She has done 30 visualizations for organic chemistry, and she plans to do more at the high school level for her students.

“A lot of molecules are represented as lines and arrows (in textbooks),” she said. “But the molecules have different configurations. The way they interact with each other changes their configurations and this is not always visible in practice.

As she demonstrated with one, she said, “It flips like an umbrella! We just tell the students that it reverses.

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