Sizes, Scales and Powers of 10

A Virtual Environment to Compare Extreme Sizes

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. 

Karen Chen in Virtual Reality
Karen Chen testing a virtual reality environment inside of her C.A.V.E.

As a solution, the team will create “Scale Worlds,” a new immersive virtual environment showing scientific entities of different sizes. Students can enter one of 31 distinct environments and see incredibly small and unbelievably large objects in relation to their bodies, like the difference between molecules and cells or the sun and the moon. This project allows students to make realistic comparisons and understand the concept of sizes, scales and powers of 10, which are impossible to make in everyday life. “Since VR enables us to visualize practically anything we could render using a computer, we thought it would be a great approach to help students conceptualize extreme scales,” Chen said. 

Chen is working with faculty from the College of Education and College of Design. “I am very excited about this collaboration with experts outside of the engineering field,” she stated, “Scale Worlds is truly a transdisciplinary research project.” How much is a billion? and how small is an atom? will be much easier questions to answer, thanks to Karen Chen and her team.