Harvard, Penn State Partner To Improve Spatial Thinking in Middle School Students

Researchers from Harvard, Penn State's College of Education and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have won a $1.387 million grant to develop labs designed to help middle school students understand spatial thinking in astronomy.

Dubbed "Thinking Spatially about the Universe — A Physical and Virtual Laboratory for Middle School Science," or ThinkSpace, the program will feature computer visualizations developed by educators at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics "using real astronomical data that will allow students to investigate important astronomical phenomena as well as designing lessons that support their ability to make sense of these phenomena through physical models and interaction with peers," according to a news release.

Julia Plummer, an associate professor in Penn State's College of Education and co-principal investigator on the grant, will work on methods to analyze how students engaged in astronomy labs use spatial reasoning.

"We are trying to understand the extent to which our labs can support students' spatial thinking and thus we need methods to understand both the change in their spatial reasoning over time but also how they are reasoning in the moment — during the actual activities they are participating in that we have designed," Plummer said in a prepared statement.

ThinkSpace labs will aim to help students understand 3D astronomical phenomena such as moon phases and eclipses while supporting more general spatial abilities.

Harvard Astronomer Alyssa Goodman is the principal investigator on the National Science Foundation grant and Phil Sadler, science education researcher at the Smithsonian Institution Astrophysical Observatory is a second principal investigator.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].