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Investigating undergraduate students’ ideas about the curvature of the Universe

, Mallory Conlon,

Abstract: [This paper is part of the Focused Collection on Astronomy Education Research.] As part of a larger project studying undergraduate students’ understanding of cosmology, we explored students’ ideas about the curvature of the Universe. We investigated preinstruction ideas held by introductory astronomy (ASTRO 101) students at three participating universities and postinstruction ideas at one. Through thematic analysis of responses to questions on three survey forms and preinstruction interviews, we found that prior to instruction a significant fraction of students said the Universe is round. Students’ reasoning for this included that the Universe contains round objects, therefore it must also be round, or an incorrect idea that the big bang theory describes an explosion from a central point. We also found that a majority of students think that astronomers use the term curvature to describe properties, such as dimensions, angles, or size, of the Universe or objects in the Universe, or that astronomers use the term curvature to describe the bending of space due to gravity. Students are skeptical that the curvature of the Universe can be measured, to a greater or lesser degree depending on question framing. Postinstruction responses to a multiple-choice exam question and interviews at one university indicate that students are more likely to correctly respond that the Universe as a whole is not curved postinstruction, though the idea that the Universe is round still persists for some students. While we see no evidence that priming with an elliptical or rectangular map of the cosmic microwave background on a postinstruction exam affects responses, students do cite visualizations such as diagrams among the reasons for their responses in preinstruction surveys.
Keywords: surveys / curvature / ideas / students / Universe / postinstruction / round / preinstruction / reasons / responses

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