Facilitating children's understanding of astronomy through a spatial perspective-taking intervention

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Bower, Corinne Alane
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 20, 2017
Committee Members:
  • Lynn Susan Liben, Dissertation Advisor
  • Lynn Susan Liben, Committee Chair
  • Rick Owen Gilmore, Committee Member
  • Richard Alan Carlson, Committee Member
  • Julia Diane Plummer, Outside Member
  • spatial cognition
  • developmental psychology
  • spatial perspective-taking
  • spatial skill intervention
  • science education
  • astronomy
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics draw heavily on spatial reasoning. Astronomy is thought to be especially spatially-complex because it requires using a space-based perspective to explain phenomena we see from an Earth-based perspective. For example, it requires using a physical model of the Earth and Sun to explain Sun’s apparent motion. Thus, spatial perspective-taking skills (i.e., recognizing a scene or an array of objects from various vantage points) are hypothesized to be particularly important to learn astronomy. It is not until around 8- to 9-years that children are able to infer the view from complex perspectives other than their own ‘self’ perspective (Piaget & Inhelder, 1957). Children’s perspective-taking skills positively correlate to their understanding of celestial motion; however, it is unclear whether having high perspective-taking skills causally facilitates understanding. The current study provided 8- to 9-year-olds with perspective-taking activities prior to teaching about celestial motion to see if the training would facilitate children's understanding of astronomical phenomena. An experimental group participated in relative position and motion activities in large, outdoor and in-room-size environments (devoid of astronomy content). A control group participated in other activities in the same space for the same amount of time without explicit perspective-taking instruction. Before and after training and astronomy instruction, all children were given a general perspective-taking task (“circles”) and a multiple-choice astronomy test along with an astronomy interview at post-test. Three transfer perspective-taking tasks were given at immediate post-test to examine the impact of training on perspective-taking skills. The circles task and astronomy test were given one-week later. Results indicate that the experimental group demonstrated better understanding of celestial motion as assessed by the astronomy interview, but not by the multiple-choice astronomy test. The training also significantly increased performance on the circles task at both immediate and one-week sessions. There was, however, no main effect of training on success on the other three perspective-taking tasks. Performance on the outdoor map task interacted with condition and gender: Girls in the control group performed better. Although additional research is needed, the current results suggest the potential utility of perspective-taking activities as foundational support for STEM education.