How much is a billion? How tiny is an atom? These seem like simple questions, but people of all ages struggle to conceptualize extreme sizes and scales. However, sizes, scales and powers of 10 (X10) are fundamental subjects in STEM. When ISE assistant professor Karen Chen heard of this challenge, she knew that VR could help bring the hard to visualize items into view. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Chen and her team a $1.3 million research grant, allowing them to use virtual reality to improve students’ understanding of the extremes of scale in STEM.
“Conceptualizing extreme scales and sizes have been a well-documented challenge in the education literature,” Chen explained. However, the subject is a crucial one to understand in STEM fields. “Given many STEM fields have to deal with entities and ideas at the extremes of scale, it is critical for students to develop accurate conceptions of scales that exist well beyond their everyday experience of the world,” Chen stated. An inaccurate understanding of size and scale can make it hard to apply concepts in the real world, and not understanding subjects can also become a barrier to STEM for students.