Teaching Special Relativity using Virtual Reality


  • Dominic McGrath
  • Craig Savage
  • Michael Williamson
  • Margaret Wegener
  • Tim McIntyre


Learning Special Relativity is a highly anticipated experience for first year students; however, the teaching and learning of Special Relativity are difficult tasks. Special Relativity, while fundamentally and mathematically simple; has apparently bizarre implications and deals predominately with situations outside everyday experience. Understanding relativity requires one to accept that there is less that is absolute than was once believed and to accept a model of time and space that is strange and unfamiliar (Mermin 2005). As such, modifying everyday concepts of motion, time and space to develop accurate constructs of the theory of Special Relativity is extraordinarily difficult (Scherr, Shaffer and Vokos 2001; 2002; Scherr 2007). While Special Relativity is often featured in introductory physics courses, Scherr (2001) indicates many students fail to develop fundamental concepts in Special Relativity even after advanced instruction. To address these issues there has broad variety of efforts to determine the conceptual misunderstandings and develop activities to address them (Belloni, Christian and Dancy 2004; Carr, Bossomaier and Lodge 2007; Gamow 1965; Mermin 2005; Scherr 2007; Taylor 1989). Real Time Relativity (RTR) is a virtual reality simulation of Special Relativity. Giving learners real time control of how they explore and test the optical, spatial and time effects of near-light-speed motion in a realistic environment enables a constructivist approach, previously unavailable, for learning Special Relativity. Given the hands-on nature of RTR, it has been incorporated into the experimental laboratories of first year physics courses at the University of Queensland (UQ) and the Australian National University (ANU). These experiments enable students to explore relativistic effects without requiring a detailed understanding of the theoretical framework. RTR experiments have been developed with an active learning approach (Hake 1999; McDemott and Redish 1998) in which students learn by developing, testing and refining their constructs with their peers. The RTR system and experiments are currently being refined in a model inspired by the Physics Education Technology group at the University of Colorado (Adams, Reid, LeMaster, McKagan, Perkins and Wieman 2008) and evaluated through a multimethods research approach (Schutz, Chambless and DeCuir 2004). This paper outlines our current point in a continuing development and evaluation project.