What if the Earth had no moon? A moonless earth would be radically different than the earth we now occupy. A learner entering a Minecraft rendition of this what-if scenario would immediately notice several differences. She might first notice that the winds are more rapid, or that the trees and mountains are not has high as they normally are. If nighttime, it would be far darker as only starlight would illuminate the terrain. There would be far fewer animals roaming around, and they would look very different (such as larger, stronger birds). These changes are all feasible consequences of not having a moon orbiting earth, and explanations for each difference link back to this cause.
For example, increased wind speed would be a result of not having a gravitational pull from the moon to slow down earth’s rotation – it would rotate at about three times the current rate. Only shorter, thicker trees could withstand those winds, and mountains would be worn down more than are mountains on our version of Earth. Similarly, with no moon the earth’s rotational axis would vary significantly, tilting it much farther over than the current 23.5 degrees it is now. This would lead to large areas on earth in extended darkness or light (producing large cold and hot spots).
Learners using our mods are invited to make observations and propose scientific explanations for what they see as different. Given ongoing discoveries of potentially habitable worlds throughout the Galaxy, such questions have high relevance to public discourse around space exploration, conditions necessary for life, and the long-term future of the human race. Studies in our project are occuring across three informal learning settings: museum exhibits, after school programs, and summer camps.
Our research is driven by the following research questions:
1. What technology-based triggers of interest have the strongest influence on interest?
2. Which contextual factors are most important for supporting long-term interest development?
3. And, what kinds of technology-based triggers are most effective for learners from audiences who are underrepresented in STEM?
This research will result in an empirically tested approach for cultivating interest that will allow educators to leverage the “What if?” pedagogy in their own work, as well as downloadable materials suitable for use in both informal and formal learning settings.
Planned studies will identify features that are effective in triggering interest with an emphasis on groups underrepresented in STEM, and elaborate on the importance of engaging learners in explanatory dialogues and in service of interest development. It is hypothesized that interacting in such novel ways can act as a trigger for interest in astronomy, physics, and potentially other areas of STEM. Design iterations will investigate different forms of learning supports, such as guidance from facilitators, collaboration, and automated guidance available within the simulations, and identify how features vary with respect to learning contexts.
Data collected includes interview and survey data to track interest development, measures of knowledge in astronomy and physics, and log files of simulation use to better understand how behaviors in the simulations align with stated interests. Results of the studies will advance the theoretical understanding of interest development and its relationship to interactive experiences, and will also have practical implications for the deployment of technology in informal settings by identifying features critical for triggering the interest of middle school learners.