Concepts in fields such as astronomy often invoke scales of space and time that far exceed any that are perceived in daily life. Consequently, learners sometimes develop inappropriate intuitions of scale that in turn impede an understanding of related ideas. We investigate whether exposure to virtual 3D simulations of the solar system advances students’ understanding of phenomena for which misconceptions often dominate. Here, high school students used handheld tablet computers (Apple iPad) driven by a
pinch-to-zoom display to manipulate virtual representations of the solar system. Learning was gauged
using a normed concept inventory of multiple choice questions that offered common misconceptions among the answer options. The experiment compared two conditions. One used a simulation where scale relationships in the solar system were exaggerated, so as to focus on surface features of the planets (much like the orrery models often used in astronomy instruction), while the other used a simulation that displayed scale relationships more appropriately.We found that, in either case, even brief exposures to instruction based on pinch-to-zoom simulations of the solar system advanced students’ understanding in areas where traditional instruction is notoriously ineffective. Furthermore, displays that used more realistic depictions of scale were more successful in addressing students’ misconceptions when scale played an important role in the concept.