Category: astro 101

I refuse to say yes to doing nothing about sexual harassment

Are there enough negatives in that title to confuse you? Good. But it’s nothing compared to the confusion I’ve felt this week. And my discomfort is a drop in the bucket of confusion and anxiety experienced every. single. day by woman who have been or are being sexually harassed.

The astronomy community was rocked again this week. I came to my current career via astronomy education and I know, not just “know of”, but personally and professionally know, all the people involved.

People who I admire and respect are making contradictory statements.

Some statements are so concrete, it’s impossible they’re both right. I can’t pledge allegiance to one without calling the other a liar. I can’t accept one side and I can’t accept two sides. The only option seems to be accept zero sides and do nothing.

No, that’s what I cannot do.

Doing nothing about allegations and instances of sexual harassment is how these behaviours have been allowed to continue.

I’m fortunate and grateful to have smart and powerful women in my community who are willing to listen to me, advise me, help me recognize what I believe, help me figure out what I can do. (If you’re part of the UC San Diego community and you’re struggling with harassment, I know Gabriele Wienhausen and Marnie Brookolo will make time for you.) They helped me recognize something we all agree on: we must condemn sexual harassment and this condemnation must be intentional and visible.

This is something I can do.

I’m putting it here in public in writing so I can hold myself, and you can hold me, accountable.

I will use Twitter to broadcast my stand on sexual harassment. This one tweet is ludicrously insufficient but it’s not nothing.

I will continue to teach the students in my teaching and learning course about recognizing and respecting the diversity of their students, about eliminating microaggressions, and about creating a learning environment where every student feels they can make a valuable contribution to the class. Not only that, but I will continue to practice modelling that behaviour as I teach the course.  Learning through diversity is one of the core ideas of the CIRTL Network where the curriculum of my course originated. This week, my friend and UC San Diego colleague, Adam Burgasser, shared with me the “Nashville Recommendations” for creating an inclusive astronomy community

My colleague Marnie Brookolo urged me I to go beyond confirming my own condemnation of sexual harassment and get my colleagues to do the same. I’m part of the UC San Diego Center for Advancing Mathematics, Science and Engineering Education (CAMSEE) which “connects individuals across mathematics, science, and engineering to advance undergraduate learning and produce scholarly educational research.” On January 13, we met with Becky Petitt, UC San Diego’s Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Becky congratulated us on making diversity an ongoing and integral part of our practice. To continue to earn that praise, I will organize my CAMSEE colleagues to write and make public a statement condemning sexual harassment in our community. NASA did it. So can will we.

I will not remain silent, eyes averted, when I witness harassment. (I did stay silent at a conference reception a year ago and it’s bugged me every day since. I still remember the conversation I had with myself – I recognized this senior, male professor’s funny anecdote was harassment, I knew I should say something, but I chickened out. Dammit!)

These are small actions, but if each of us refuses to say yes to doing nothing, perhaps these somethings can begin to create an environment where every member of the community is welcomed and celebrated for the unique strengths they bring.


These updates are here so I can be accountable to myself. This is absolutely not about me looking for thanks or a pat on the back. Instead, I need to prove to myself that I’m not just talking but actually doing.

ThumbsUp_WikimediaCommonsJanuary 21, 2016. In a meeting with a job candidate, one of the people made a comment that included the candidate’s marital status and what their spouse does. The candidate had not volunteered that information. That information should have no bearing on our assessment. After the meeting, I spoke confidentially with that person to point out they’d shared private information about the candidate. This person was all, “Oh damn, I’m also so careful about that! Alright, I’ll be more careful now…”

ThumbsUp_WikimediaCommonsJanuary 21, 2016. I went to a (different) job candidate’s teaching demo. The candidate is a young woman in a STEM field. She included a simulation in her lesson and as she was setting up the simulation, a man in the audience (a faculty member) said, “Miss, I think you selected the wrong parameter for the simulation…” Without a pause, the candidate said, “I’d prefer it if you didn’t make assumptions about my marital status and called me Dr. ____. Thank-you for pointing out that parameter…” Okay, that was freakin’ awesome! I almost clapped (but recognized that could throw her off her lesson.) After the presentation, I made a point of speaking with her and let her I noticed what she’d done, that it must have been difficult (calling out a faculty member in the Department you’re applying to!), that it was awesome, and that she should be very proud of herself. This is about recognizing other people’s condemnations of sexual harassment and letting them know those actions are noticed and appreciated. It’s a way I can use my privilege to foster an inclusive, diverse, equitable, welcoming community.

ThumbsDown_WikimediaCommonsJanuary 26, 2016. In my teaching and learning class, I asked students for their thoughts about something. A student suggested exactly what I was hoping for. Her answer was so good, I kinda’ sputtered and mumbled because I didn’t know what to say. And I’m 99% sure I saw her react – as if I’d announced to the class she was wrong. If you have any hint of imposter syndrome, having your instructor smirk or snicker at you would crank it up to 11.  I sent her email the next day. My wanted to admit I’d made a mistake, apologize, affirm she has valuable contributions to make, and thank her for generously sharing those contributions. It’s so hard to write that email without victim-blaming

  • “I’m sorry if my behavior today…” IF? Yeah, like it’s your fault you reacted.
  • “I’m sorry if you felt…” IF? YOU felt? Again, your fault.

Declaring what you did and apologizing, without the recipient being forced take some blame or offer forgiveness, is hard. I finally went with this (redacted to preserve some anonymity.)

Hi ____,

At the beginning of [our class], I asked everyone about [today’s topic]. You gave an answer so good, I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled something that gave you the idea that what you said was wrong.

I’m really sorry about that. That was a wrong on my part.

You have valuable and unique insights and experiences and I greatly appreciate your generosity and willingness to share them.

See you in class,


I’m very grateful this student took the time to reply, and greatly admire that she wrote a message [published here with her permission] that doesn’t “forgive me”:

Hi Peter,

No offense taken, but I absolutely appreciate you taking the time to extend an apology just in case. Having taught for a few years now, I have had my share of awkward or bumbling responses! I understand.

Thank you for the good example. See you next week.


A Tale of Two Comets: Evidence-Based Teaching in Action

Comet McNaught
Comet McNaught wow'd observers in the Southern Hemisphere in 2007. (Image by chrs_snll on flickr CC)

We often hear about “evidence-based teaching and learning.” In fact, it’s a pillar of the approach to course development and transformation that we follow in the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative.

It’s a daunting phrase, though, “evidence-based teaching and learning.” It sounds like I have to find original research in a peer-reviewed article, read and assimilate the academic prose, and find a way to apply that in my classroom. Does a typical university instructor have the time or motivation? Not likely.

It doesn’t have to be like that, though. There are quicker, easier analyses and subsequent modifications of materials that, in my opinion, qualify as evidence-based teaching. Let me share with you an example from an introductory, general-ed “Astro 101” astronomy course. First, a bit of astronomy.

Comets and their tails

Comets are dusty snowballs of water ice and other material left over from the formation of the Solar System. The comets we celebrate, like Comet Halley, travel along highly-elongated, elliptical orbits that extend from the hot, intense region near the Sun to the cold, outer-regions of the Solar System.

Comet's tail
A comet's tails point away from the Sun. The comet is orbiting clockwise in this diagram so the yellow dust tail trails slightly behind the blue ion tail.

As comets approach the Sun, like Comet Halley does every 76 years, the comet’s nucleus warms up. The ice turns to gas which creates a sometimes-spectacular tail. The tail grows larger and larger, streaming out behind the comet until it rounds the Sun and begins to head back out into the Solar System. That’s when something interesting happens. Well, another interesting thing, that is. You may think the comet’s tail streams out behind like the exhaust trail (the contrail) of an airplane but once the comet rounds the Sun, the tail swings around ahead of the comet. Yes, the nucleus follows the tail. That’s because the tail is blown outward by the solar wind so that the tail of a comet always points away from the Sun. (Well, there are actually 2 tails. The ion tail is strongly influenced by the solar wind – it’s the one blown directly away from the Sun. A dust trail also interacts gravitationally with the Sun, causing it to curl out behind the ion tail.)

Teaching and learning

It’s not what you’d expect, the tail wagging the dog. And that’s make it a great opportunity for peer instruction and follow-up summative assessment.

Last December, the course’s instructor and I sat down to write the final exam. We could have used a multiple-choice question

The ion tail of a comet always…
A) points away from the Sun
B) trails behind the comet
C) D) E) [other distractors]

Or perhaps a more graphical version, like this one from the ClassAction collection of concept questions:

Comet Trajectories concept question from ClassAction
A concept question about the shape of a comet's tail from the ClassAction collection at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. The correct answer is C, by the way.

Both of these questions are highly-susceptible to success-by-recognition where the student doesn’t really know the answer until s/he recognizes it in the options. “What do comets’ tails do again? Oh right, they point away from the Sun.”

Instead, we decided on a question that better assessed their grasp of how comet tails behave. The cost is, this question is more difficult to mark:


Oh, the question was marked out of 2, 1 pt for each tail pointing away from the Sun. That’s not the kind of assessment I mean, though. I’m talking about the assessment that goes into evidence-based teaching and learning. How did the students respond to this question? What it a good test of their understanding?

I went through the stack of N=63 exams and sorted them into categories. It wasn’t hard to come up with those categories, it was pretty obvious after the first 10 papers.

  • 46 students: tails of equal lengths pointing away from the Sun. Yep, 2 out of 2.
  • 5 students: tails of equal lengths pointing away from the Sun with guidelines. Nice touch, reinforcing why you drew the tails the way you did. 2 out of 2. And some good karma in case you need the benefit of the doubt later on the exam.
  • 3 students: drew ion tail correctly and dust tail mostly correct. Good karma for adding extra detail, though the dust trail is too much traily-behindy. Be careful, kids, when you write more than is asked for – you could lose marks.
  • 1 student: tails with (correctly) unequal lengths pointing away from the Sun. Oh, very good! Maybe 3 out of 2 for this answer!
  • 8 students: various incorrect answers. I like this first one (“Oh, geez, there’s something about pointing and the Sun, isn’t there? Ummm…”)

Evidence-based teaching

It’s clear that the vast majority of students grasp the concept that a comet’s tail points away from the Sun. Terrific!

So why are we wasting this question on such an obvious bit information, then? Let me put that another way:  These students are evidently, and I mean evidently, capable of learning more about comets. We thought this <ghost> “Oooooo, watch oouuttt! Comet tails point awaaaaayyyy from the Suuuun…” </ghost> concept would be difficult enough. Nope, yhey surprised us. So let’s crank it up next year. Let’s explore the difference between the ion and dust tails. And that the length of the tail changes as the comet approaches and recedes from the Sun. Next year, the answer that gets full marks will be the one with

  • 2 tails at each position,
  • the ion tail pointing away from the Sun,
  • the dust tail lagging slightly behind the ion tail,
  • short tails at the far location, large tails at the close location

That’s evidence-based teaching and learning. Find out what they know and then react by building on it and leveraging it to explore the concept deeper (or shallower, depending on the evidence.) It’s not difficult. It doesn’t require poring over Tables of Contents, even in the excellent Astronomy Education Review. All it requires is small amount of data collection, analysis and ability to use the information. Hey, those are all qualities of a good scientist, aren’t they?

Is going over the answers negative reinforcement?

My wife works with people with developmental delays, like autism and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Her niche is sexual health.  Imagine the hormones of a teenaged boy with the impulse-control of a 5-year-old. She often gets called in when some Grade 6’er starts whippin’ it out – either for the reaction he gets or because he doesn’t realize that’s not what typical Grade 6ers do.

The other day, we were talking about how to change people’s behaviours and she gave me an example of positive, no wait, negative, erm, reinforcement. I’m out of my depth when it comes to psychology so let me remind me (and you) about the difference, in overly-simplified terms I can get my head around. Oh, and when I’ve mentioned I’m writing this post, everyone I’ve spoken to gives a different definition of negative reinforcement, so it’s possible the one below is different than yours…

Positive reinforcement is something that’s added, typically by the person in authority – a parent, teacher, boss – after a person does something good. Like a high-5 by the coach after a good play, for example. That action strengthens the person’s motivation to repeat the behaviour.

Negative reinforcement strengths the unwanted behaviour. Your kid is having a fit because she doesn’t want to clean her room. Suppose you say, “Okay, I understand you don’t want to do it. Why don’t you watch TV for half an hour, calm down, and then clean your room….” It reinforces the undesired behaviour.

Every source I googled made sure to point out negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. Getting grounded because you haven’t cleaned your room is not negative reinforcement.

(Geez, this is subtle. I can imagine some amazing clicker questions about positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment. [Update March 19, 2012: A couple of days after I wrote this post, Derek Bruff wrote about a clicker workshop he gave, including some pos/neg reinforcement clicker questions created by one of the participants.]  Okay, back to the conversation with my wife.)

Scene 1: Grade 6 classroom

There’s this boy, let’s call him John. John like to strip his clothes off at school. Like in the middle of class. His teacher intervenes. Frustrated with John’s continual stripping, the school decides they have no choice but to send John home when he strips, punishing him for his behaviour. But here’s the thing – John might have a developmental delay but he knows what’s what: he doesn’t like school. He strips so he can get sent home. In fact, John has started stripping on the school bus on the way to school so he doesn’t even have to go through the charade of going to class. Sending John home, which the staff feel is punishment for his behaviour, is, in fact, a reward for John. What they think is punishment is, in fact, negative reinforcement for John.

“So what are they supposed to do?” I asked her.

They shouldn’t send John home. And they shouldn’t praise him for keeping his clothes on. Instead, throughout the days when John is at school, the teachers should say, “We’re so glad you’re here with us today, John!” That’s positive reinforcement, something added to John’s school day that strengthens the good behaviour of keeping his clothes on.

What I’ve left out is what to do during the difficult transition time between he continually rips off his clothes and when he keeps them on. The teacher needs to intervene somehow. Calling my wife is a good start!

Scene 2: University physics lecture hall

The physics instructor has realized that his traditional, “all lecture, all the time” style of teaching does not promote learning like he wants.  He’s decided to make the class more student-centered. He gives 10-15 minute mini-lectures and then hands out worksheets which are supposed to guide and scaffold the students through the next stage of the development of the concept. The problem is, the students don’t do the worksheets. They just sit there, staring at the empty spaces on the page or desperately scribbling down formulas like I described here, biding their time, because they know he’ll be going over the answers in a few minutes. Sure enough, after a while, he goes over the answer to Question 1. The students madly scribble down his solution or, increasingly, grab their phones and start snapping pictures.

He’s not punishing them for not doing the worksheets (“Why have you not answered the questions!? You will all Remain. In. This. Classroom. Until I see some work!”) Rather, he’s reinforcing their behaviour of not doing the worksheet. They get what they want (the answers) and he thinks he’s helping. This seems to be an example of negative reinforcement, at least according to the definition I posited earlier.

“So what is he supposed to do?”

Good question.

Let’s look at this top down: What do the students need to get out of the activity? They need feedback on their answers in a timely manner. “Timely” because feedback a month later when they fail the exam is too late. One way to give them feedback is to go over the answers so they can check. That’s not the model used by the significant portion of the astronomy education community who use the Lecture Tutorials worksheets. Instructors do not go over the answers. Instead, the worksheets have built-in feedback and most instructors follow the worksheets with a sequence of peer instruction questions. If you get those questions correct, you know you’re okay on the worksheet. If you don’t get the questions correct, your peers will straighten you out. At the very least, you’ll know which concepts you didn’t get and can talk to the prof or TAs about them. More positive reinforcement comes when you ace those identical or “identical except some parameters changed” questions on the exam.

I’d love to create a sequence of clicker questions to follow the worksheets in this physics class but that’s not the simplest alternative because it requires the instructor to be agile with worksheets AND with peer instruction. One thing at a time…

What about this? The instructor watches the students doing the worksheet questions, monitoring their progress. If everyone is getting along just fine, don’t stop them. When it looks like students are stuck, and individual attention by the instructor or TA can’t handle the widespread confusion, intervene with a class-wide discussion. Don’t begin with, “I’m so happy you answered Questions 1 and 2 by yourselves!” (“John, I’m so glad you kept your pants on today!”) Instead, work together to get past the sticking point. Get the students to contribute to the solution, using the work they’ve already done to chip away at the problem. A pat on the back or a high-5 for a good tidbit of problem solving. The students are praised and rewarded for the work they’ve done, even if it’s not complete. That’s positive reinforcement for good behaviour, right?

(Unless that’s an example of “intermittent” negative reinforcement which, according to my wife, is even stronger than continuous.)

Yes, there will be difficult transition period, when students are not solving the problems and the instructor is not going over all the answers. Sorry, tough it out.

What if the students were never allowed to get into the habit of not doing the questions? What if, from Worksheet 1 on Day 1, this collaborative solution approach was the way it’s done. Ahh, now that would be something, wouldn’t it?

Alright, I’m not exactly sure where I’m at. I know the current method of going over the answers isn’t working. And that if we make changes, there will be a difficult period of transition. I like the collaborative problem solving approach — I’ve seen it happen in a physics class of about 30, where the agile instructor knew everyone’s name and kept track (in his head) of who hadn’t contributed yet, calling on them for input.

One other thing I know:  I should learn some more psychology.

Image: RaaksBeton2 by Dan Kamminga on flickr CC. In my mind, it shows people working together to reinforce what they’re building.