Student Learning in the Planetarium

Mar 23, 2012

Do students learn more about the motions of the Sun and the stars in the sky when in the planetarium versus being in the classroom? That’s the question graduate student Paul Sell set out to answer in his “Assessing Student Learning in the Planetarium” research study during the fall semester. Based on his findings, the short answer is a surprising “no.”

Over a 9-week period, Paul carried out the various parts of the study for each discussion section in the three introductory Astronomy 103 classes offered that semester. He taught the students the material, administered a short survey after their experience, and administered pre- and post-tests three weeks before and after the teaching. Scientist Eric Hooper served as his advisor.

Each of the three classes learned with different teaching tools or were in a different environment. Paul taught two classes in the UW-Madison planetarium—one with demos and one without—and taught the third class in a classroom setting with a PowerPoint presentation and demos. Each class had six weekly discussion sections.

Figure: The two demos both used for two of the three classes: one showing our perspective of the celestial sphere from the Earth and the other using Yoda to represent us here on Earth looking up toward the Sun from different latitudes and during different seasons.  These are used to help the students relate the motions of the stars and Sun over our heads as the Earth rotates and orbits the Sun.

While Paul was the teaching assistant for one class, students in the other two classes didn’t know him. “To break the ice in those classes, I would chat with the students a few minutes beforehand and asked them simple questions such as which figurine (Yoda or Homer Simpson) I might use in my demonstrations,” he explains. “This set the stage for them to get involved and respond to me throughout the class.”

Paul integrated active learning into his discussion section by asking students to predict where the Sun and the stars in the sky would be and where they would go during the day and the year in the sky. By raising an arm over their heads to point at locations in the sky, students were able to show that they were following along with the explanations. “This was learning in action,” says Paul.

The results were surprising. The students all improved their scores by the same amount—10 to 20 percent on average from pre- to post-test—with no increased improvement for those learning in UW-Madison's planetarium. “My hypothesis was that the planetarium is a better learning environment than the traditional classroom,” says Paul. “Based on content tests that I administered three weeks before and after I taught the material, I expected an increased improvement in students' scores in the planetarium versus the classroom.”

Students did indicate that they enjoyed their experience in the planetarium much more than being in the classroom. “This ‘wow’ factor is something that cannot be encapsulated by the content tests, especially over only a few weeks,” Paul explains.

As with all first research, there are multiple ways to interpret the results and, of course, there are more questions. “A solid conclusion is that we need to consider ways that we can make this teaching tool more effective,” says Eric.

The study (Institutional Review Board protocol #SE-2011-0550) is part of Paul’s internship with the Delta Program, UW-Madison’s program for preparing future faculty to be excellent teachers as well as excellent researchers ( His interest in using the planetarium arose from his 3-1/2 years of experience working at the University of Toledo’s (Ohio) Ritter Planetarium, where, as an undergraduate, he gave hundreds of shows to the public.

“I enjoy thinking about and improving my teaching skills both for my own personal satisfaction and for the benefit of my students,” says Paul. “I can’t imagine taking a future position without at least some teaching component.”

Paul presented his initial results in a poster session at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas in January. He and Eric will continue to analyze the data they have collected thus far to look for additional interesting results. Upon completion, they plan to submit their results to an education research journal.

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