Fostering Enduring Interest in STEM through Exoplanet Education and Interactive Exploration and Creation of Potentially Habitable Worlds

August 1st, 2019 - July 31st, 2022 | PROJECT

It is estimated that there could be 40 billion earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of stars in the Milky Way. Major advances in long range telescopes have allowed astronomers to identify thousands of exoplanets in recent decades, and the discovery of new exoplanets is a now a common occurrence. Public excitement for the discoveries grown alongside these discoveries, thus opening new possibilities for inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers that may dream of one day visiting these planets. This project investigates the use of interactive, intelligent educational technologies to generate interest in STEM by allowing learners to explore and even create their own exoplanets. Research will occur across several informal learning contexts, including summer camps, after school programs, planetarium shows, and at home. The approach is based on the idea of "What if?"questions about Earth (e.g., "What if the Moon did not exist?"), designed to trigger interest in STEM and frame exploratory and elaborative discussions around hypothetical science questions that are subsequently linked to the search for habitable exoplanets. Learners are able to interact with and explore scientifically accurate simulations of alternative versions of Earth, while making observations and posing explanations for what they see. Technology-based informal learning experiences designed to act as triggers for and sustainment of interest in STEM have the potential to plug the leaky STEM pipeline, and thus have profound implications for the future of science and technology in the United States. 

The project seeks to advance the science of designing technologies for promoting interest in STEM and informal astronomy education in several ways. First, the project will develop simulations for exploratory learning about astronomy and planetary science. These simulations will present hypothetical worlds based on what-if questions and feasible models of known exoplanets, thus giving learners a chance to better understand the challenges of finding a habitable world and learning about what is needed to survive there. Second, a new PBS NOVA Lab will be developed that will focus on Exoplanet education. This web-based activity has the potential to reach millions of learners and will help them understand how planets are formed and the requirements for supporting life. Learners who use the lab will have an opportunity to invent their own exoplanets and export them for first-person exploration. Third, researchers on the project will design and implement Artificial Intelligence-based pedagogical agents to support learning and promote interest. These agents will inhabit the simulations with the learner, acting as a coach and guide, and be designed to be culturally responsive and personalized based on learner preferences. Fourth, interactive exoplanet-focused planetarium shows, that will involve live interaction with simulations, will take place at the Fiske Planetarium (Boulder, CO). Finally, the project will develop a server-based infrastructure for tracking and supporting long term development of interest in STEM. This back-end will track fine-grained behaviors, including movement, actions, and communications in the simulations. Such data will reveal patterns about how interest develops, how learners engage in free-choice learning activities, and how they interact with agents and peers in computer simulations. A design-based research methodology will be employed to assess the power of these different experiences to trigger interest and promote learning of astronomy. A range of different pathways for interest in STEM will therefore be considered and assessed. Research will measure the power of these experiences to trigger interest in STEM and promote re-engagement over time. Innovation lies in the use of engaging and intelligent technologies with thought-provoking pedagogy as a method for extended engagement of diverse young learners in STEM. Project research and educational resources will be widely disseminated to researchers, designers developers and the general public via peer-reviewed research journals, conference presentations, informal STEM education networks of science museums, children's museums, Fab Labs, and planetariums, and public media such as public television's NOVA science program website.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which supports innovative research, approaches, and resources for use in a variety of learning settings.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

2021 STEM for All Video Showcase Video: WHIMC: Using Minecraft to Trigger Interest in STEM
2023 AISL Awardee Mini-Poster: 1906873

Team Members

H Chad Lane, Principal Investigator, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Neil Comins, Co-Principal Investigator
Jorge Perez-Gallego, Co-Principal Investigator
David Condon, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 1906873
Funding Amount: $1,950,733


Audience: Evaluators | General Public | Learning Researchers | Museum | ISE Professionals | Scientists
Discipline: Education and learning science | Space science
Resource Type: Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: Afterschool Programs | Media and Technology | Planetarium and Science on a Sphere | Public Programs | Summer and Extended Camps | Websites | Mobile Apps | Online Media