Tag: science

Why do we teach astronomy?

I just spent a week in Seattle at the 217th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society. If you’re here via my Twitter feed, you’ve been bombarded with my #aas217 tweets. I’ll be sharing some thoughts and experiences in future posts. There was one experience that really sticks in my memory, though.

Ed Prather from the Center for Astronomy Education led a workshop that I attended. I’ve been to a number CAE workshops with Ed. He’s intense. You don’t have “thin” conversations with Ed.

Ed and his colleagues are dedicated to teaching (and teaching  teachers to teach) “Astro 101”, the general education course that 100,000’s of non-Science undergraduates take each year. It’s likely their first, last and only science course. As Ed proclaims, and with which I wholeheartedly agree, we need to teach these people science. Not because they’re on their way to becoming scientists – that audience isn’t taking “Astro 101”. Rather, these people are the next generation of teachers, lawyers, politicians, journalists, parents.  In this age of technology, medical advances and global warming, it’s vital that the next generation of voters be scientifically literate.

Yes, YES! Just the pep talk that gets my heart pounding! And then Ed continued…

Why it is so critical? Because high-tech, science-related jobs in the United States are not being filled by Americans.


Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with patriotism. In fact, I admire how strong his convictions are. And if I dig deep enough in my brain and heart, I’ll probably say the same thing about Canadian kids. But I haven’t thought about it that way. I’m still at the “let’s do this for our kids because they’re inheriting our mess.” Maybe that’s naive of me. Or maybe it’s a Canadian/American thing. Either way, we all agree that scientifically literate citizens are critical to our — all of our — future.

Evidence of Learning in Astronomy

Throughout the Sep-Dec, 2010 term, I worked with an astronomy instructor to create a more learner-centered classroom. As I described elsewhere, we spent just over one third of the instructional time on interactive activities: think-pair-share using clickers, lecture-tutorial worksheets, ranking tasks and a couple of predict-observe demonstrations. And it resulted in a learning gain of 0.42 on a particular assessment tool, the LSCI. That means the students learned 42% of the concepts they didn’t already know at the beginning of the term. That’s not bad — we’re pretty happy with it.

So, students can learn in a learner-centered classroom. But maybe they can learn in a more traditional classroom, too.

We don’t have LSCI data from previous years (note to self: think ahead! Collect standardized assessment data on classes before attempting any transformations!) To investigate if transforming the instruction class makes any difference, we re-used, word-for-word, a handful of questions from the same instructor’s 2008 Final Exam (pre-transformation) on this term’s Final Exam: 10 multiple-choice questions and 4 longer-answer questions. We made sure the questions assessed the concepts we covered in 2010 in sync with the learning goals.

I extracted students’ marks on these 14 questions from the 2010 exams (N=144). And from the old, 2008 exams (N=107), being sure to re-mark the longer-answer questions using the 2010 rubric. (Note to self #2: buy aspirin on the way home.)

What were we hoping for? Significant increase in student success in the transformed,  learner-centered course.

How I wish I could report that’s what we found. But I can’t. Because we didn’t. Here are the results:

Students scores on questions used on both the 2008 and 2010 Final Exams in the introductory astronomy course, ASTR 311. Error bars are standard error of the mean.

There is no significant difference in student success on the 10 multiple-choice questions. Their scores on the entire exams are also the same, though the exams are not identical, only about 1/4 of the 2008 exam is re-used in 2010. Nevertheless, these nearly identical Exam scores suggest the populations of students in 2008 and 2010 are about the same.  There are are differences in the 4 long-answer questions: the 2008 students did better than their 2010 counterparts.

Two things jumped out at me

  1. Why did they do so much better on the long-answer questions? I said we used the same marking rubric but we didn’t use the same markers. A team of teaching assistants marked the 2010 exams; I(re) marked the 2008 exams. The long-answer questions are work 10 marks, so a little more (or less) generosity in marking – half a mark here, half a mark there – could make a difference. I really need to get the same TAs to remark the 2008 exams. Yeah, like that’s gonna happen voluntarily. Hmm, unless there’s potential for a publication in the AER
  2. Why, oh why, didn’t they do better this year? Even if we omit the suspicious long-answer marks and look only at the multiple-choice questions, there is no difference. Did we fail?

No, it’s not a failure. The instructor reduced her lecturing time by 35%. We asked the students to spend 35% of their time teaching themselves. And it did no harm. The instructor enjoyed this class much than in 2008. We had consistent 75% attendance (it was much lower by the end of the term in 2008) and students were engaged in material each and every class. I think that’s a success.

The next step in this experiment is to look for retention. There is evidence in physics (see Pollock & Chasteen, “Longer term impacts…” here) that students who engage in material and generate their own knowledge retain the material longer. With that in mind, I hope to re-test these 2010 students with LSCI in about 3 months, after they’ve had a term to forget everything. Or maybe not…

Leveraging Public Outreach

Every winter for the last 7 years, my Department has put on a science show for the general public, following the tradition celebrated by physicist Michael Faraday (1791-1867).

Orion (Credit & Copyright: Matthew Spinelli)

This year’s theme was “The Physics of Light and Colour”. We did demos about lasers, solar power, optical illusions, twinkling stars, this cool Cubee device developed at UBC. For my 10 minutes, I talked about colour and temperature – how we usually portray cold as blue but to astronomers, blue = hot. I encouraged everyone to go home and look for the bright, coloured stars in the constellation Orion.  (I projected Star Walk from my iPad thru the theatre projector to show everyone where to look. Oh my! Fantastic!)

We had an amazing turn-out: nearly 350 people, at least half of them kids!

Before and after the show, I set up a four Galileoscopes on tripods outside the building. Sure, it was to attract people and tell them they were in the right place. But really, it was so I could get a bunch of kids looking through my telescopes. It was the middle of the day so we looked at signs, cars, people, a statue and a Caterpillar excavator. And they were all upside-down! What’s up with that, kids?

When it was over and I had a few quiet moments to take down the telescopes, I thought about the best parts of the afternoon, and came to a new realization about why I do “sidewalk astronomy”. From least to most important:

3. I love looking at stuff through my telescope. I can still remember the first time I saw Saturn’s rings. This is one of those defining moments for many budding astronomers, like watching Neil Armstrong take his one small step is the defining moment for almost every astronaut who’s ever talked about why they became an astronaut.

2. I love helping kids see stuff through my telescope. Typically, kids run up, grab the scope, jam their eyes near the eyepiece. Talk talk talk blab blab squeal. And then the image snaps into focus. “blab blab squ-. . . . . . oooooooh!” I love that moment! (Tip: if you’re aiming at something really bright like the Moon, often you see the image forming on the kid’s cheek and you can gently maneuver their head to get the bright image on their pupil.)

1. This is the new one for me. It was so rewarding talking to the kids’ parents. They’re already interested enough that they’ve brought their kids to your event. If you can get them enthusiastic and excited, they’ll carry on the conversation and discoveries at home. And they’ll be the ones who experience that magical moment when their kids see Saturn for the first time.

Unfortunately, it means I give up the golden moments with the kids — and that’s hard to do because it’s like a drug. But it leverages my enthusiasm and excitement. And knowledge: knowledge of astronomy and knowledge of how to teach astronomy.

Still, here I am, writing about how much I enjoyed talking with the parents. Maybe I’ve found a new drug…