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Physics Professor Uses AR, 3D to Teach Spatial Reasoning

Siena College physics professor Michele McColgan used a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to create an augmented reality program to help students visualize and wrap their minds around mathematical models.

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(TNS) — A physics professor has created a way for students to hold the unseeable in the palm of their hand, manipulating magnetic fields and electrical charges to see how they work.

Using augmented reality on a touchscreen, they can see a 3D image and move it with their hands.

It's a new way to teach spatial reasoning, a skill that many people lack.

When they're confronted with a textbook line drawing of a molecule, with arrows to show its changes step by step, they can't imagine it in three dimensions.

"We say, 'imagine in your head,'" said Siena College physics professor Michele McColgan. "Most students don't."

That can lead to many students, particularly women, dropping out of science and math related majors in college. Internationally, women score worse on spatial reasoning than men, which McColgan said could be related to how society encourages play. Many students learn from toys, Lego, certain video games — activities more often presented to boys.

But for both genders, spatial reasoning is a teachable skill, McColgan said. She thinks young students — long before college — should start working with augmented reality so they can see how science and math work in three dimensions.

She has just won a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to expand upon the work she and several students have done to build augmented reality images for many basic science concepts.

"What it does is opening it up so we don't lose students in STEM," she said, referring to science, technology, engineering and math.

McColgan started using her augmented reality instruction in a special middle school program she taught. The students learned so easily that she thought, "Why aren't I doing this in class?"

So she took it to her higher-level electric fields class, which is full of juniors and seniors. Surely, she thought, they had developed spatial reasoning to get that far in college science classes. But as she described slicing a cylinder, it was clear the students weren't getting it.

"They weren't able to visualize the math," she said. "They were like, 'What are you talking about?'"

With the augmented reality program, they understood in moments what usually took an entire class period to explain.

Other professors took note. A neurosciences professor asked for augmented reality of molecules.

"The neuroscience professor was like, 'My students never seem to understand this.' He said they just can't visualize it," McColgan said.

So physics student Enzo Morina and other students spent the summer creating one program, showing the potential-of-action concept in a neuron.

"You can't see this, because it's in a neuron," Morina said, as a neuron reacted to polarization and depolarization — a dry topic made much more engaging as ions started pouring out of the neuron during depolarization.

Now the professor has asked for a whole series of visualizations, to help with much of the course.

Morina became a fan of the visualizations during a physics course, in which he realized something about his own spatial reasoning.

"It was awful," he said. "Now it's a lot better."

Everyone in his class did better once they saw physics in action virtually, he said.

The system may be coming to high schools soon. Natalie Stagnitti, a senior majoring in chemistry, is planning to teach high school science after graduation. She made 30 visualizations for organic chemistry, and she plans to make more at high school level for her students.

"A lot of molecules are represented as lines and arrows (in textbooks)," she said. "But molecules have different configurations. The way they interact with each other changes their configurations and you don't always see that concretely."

As she demonstrated with one, she said, "This flips like an umbrella! Students are just told it inverts."

©2022 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.