Looking skyward: WWT Digital Dome project brings planetariums to Chinese schools

WorldWide Telescope | Digital Dome: Stargazing goes high tech for schools in China

About 10 months ago, China’s first planetarium driven by the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) was launched at the Shixinlu primary school. Powered by six high-resolution projectors, the 8-meter dome installation has enabled students not only to see and study the stars and the universe in an immersive planetarium setting, but it also has allowed them to create their own tours of the heavens and have them displayed on the dome.

That installation marked the beginning of the WWT Digital Dome project in China, a project that aims to add WWT-driven planetariums to schools at every level—from primary through university. Currently, three primary schools and three universities are constructing or are committed to building a WWT Digital Dome, and three additional universities and the Beijing Planetarium have expressed strong interest in hosting a Digital Dome installation.

The WWT Digital Dome installation at Shixinlu primary school
The WWT Digital Dome installation at Shixinlu primary school

Recognizing the teaching potential of this growing network of WWT Digital Dome installations, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), Central China Normal University (CCNU), and Chongqing Wutai Technology Co. Ltd are working to form an alliance among the WWT planetariums. This alliance will enable the various schools to share their experiences with the WWT Digital Dome—including tricks and tips for using the hardware and software.

More importantly, the alliance will allow participating schools to exchange key takeaways about developing curriculum and tours based on Digital Dome content. This pedagogical cross-fertilization is already taking shape with the design of WWT curricula for primary and secondary schools. There are now 16 WWT courses for primary and secondary schools, including 22 modules for primary schools, 33 modules for middle schools, and 26 modules for high schools. More than 2,000 students have been taught by using these courses.

In addition, dozens of guided tours have been completed at the primary school and secondary school level, covering such basic astronomical concepts as “Exploring our Family—the Earth,” “Understanding the Galaxy and the Universe,” and “Viewing the Seasonal Stars.” Meanwhile, advanced tours—which take advantage of the Layerscape (a WWT add-in for Excel that enables users to visualize spatial data)—are being prepared for high schools and colleges. And a community of WWT users in Beijing has begun integrating traditional Chinese constellation images into the WWT astronomical data sets, providing a unique cultural link between the past and present.

Seeking to build on these educational efforts, from July 29 to 30, Microsoft Research, NAOC, and CCNU sponsored a WWT training workshop in Chongqing, our fourth such collaborative workshop. The event, which took place at the Shixinlu primary school, drew more than 30 faculty members from every level of schooling—primary, secondary, and higher education.

Dr. Cuilan Qiao's talk covered basic and advanced features of the WorldWide Telescope.
Dr. Cuilan Qiao’s talk covered basic and advanced features of the WorldWide Telescope.

During the first day of this intense, tightly focused event, I gave a talk on the history of WWT in China and introduced one of Microsoft Research’s latest teaching tools: Office Mix, a tool for creating compelling online lessons. Then Dr. Chenzhou Cui of NAOC gave an overview of the Chinese Virtual Observatory—a project that aims to create a data-intensive, online astronomical research and education platform—and WWT’s potential role in this national effort. This was followed by a presentation from Dr. Cuilan Qiao and her team from CCNU, who introduced the attendees to WWT’s basic and advanced features.

On day two, we focused on the WWT Digital Dome, showing how it can be an invaluable teaching tool. The day’s events included a WWT video designed by students and faculty from the Shixinlu school, as well as talks by the WWT engineering team on the construction and operation of the Digital Dome.

Faculty from every level—primary, secondary, and higher education—anxiously awaited a tour highlighting the WWT's teaching potential.
Faculty from every level—primary, secondary, and higher education—anxiously awaited a tour highlighting the WWT’s teaching potential.

This workshop was just the latest example of our continued collaborative efforts to develop a WWT curriculum and construct Digital Dome planetariums in China. With the planned addition of WWT Digital Dome installations described earlier, the body of WWT teaching materials will undoubtedly grow even faster. Microsoft Research is pleased to be part of this educational program, which is increasing scientific literacy and sparking intellectual curiosity among Chinese students.

Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research

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