Category: teaching

Astronomy Labs

When I worked as a Science Education Specialist in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at UBC with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, I had the opportunity to create lab activities for the survey astronomy courses (aka “Astro 101”). These are courses aimed at students outside the Faculty of Science who need some science credits to graduate. One course was about the Solar System; the other is about stars and galaxies.

With the support of the CWSEI, I worked with some terrific course instructors to first write learning outcomes for each course. We then identified the outcomes that would be better supported by hands-on learning in the labs. For example, it’s well known students struggle to learn about the phases of the Moon by listening to the professor and looking at diagrams in a traditional lecture, whereas in a hands-on lab setting, students would be better able to

  1. use the geometry of the Earth, Moon, and Sun to illustrate the phases of the Moon and to predict rise/set times
  2. illustrate the geometry of the Sun, Earth, and Moon during lunar and solar eclipses and explain why there are not eclipses every month

I aimed to develop activities that gave students opportunities to practice thinking and acting in more expert-like ways, rather than replicating and confirming known results. So, some of these activities are a bit unusual, like figuring out the best night of the month to sneak across campus or spaghettifying a Playdoh astronaut as he falls into a blackhole.

Format and Files

All the activities have a similar format:

  • The activities are designed to be completed in 50 minutes by 20-30 students in a basic lab environment (large tables to support teamwork and collaboration, some specialized equipment, space for students and TAs to circulate). They’re classified as “tutorials” because they’re only 50 minutes long, rather than 3-hour “labs”.
  • Each activity has a brief intro that motivates the outcomes, one or more active, hands-on, discovery phase(s), and ends with a short assessment the students hand in on their way out the door.
  • The activities are facilitated by 1 (or sometimes 2) trained and engaged Teaching Assistants and that required us to write guides for the TAs. It’s well known that “recipe” labs are less effective: students are able to follow a detailed set of instructions but often are unable to transfer what they verify to other contexts. We learned quickly that providing TAs with a recipe for running the activity (“1. Do A. 2. Get students to do B. 3. Do C….”) did not engage the TAs, gave them no opportunity to learn about teaching, and provided minimal professional development for those looking ahead to academic careers. So, I revised the TA Guides so they identify the required equipment and steps and also give recommended questions and scripts to drive the discussions and explanations for the pedagogical choices.
  • The files linked here include PDFs of the materials handed out to students, the TA Guide, and a .zip file with LaTeX, .eps graphics, and any other supporting materials. The LaTeX files use several packages including pstricks. Overleaf has no problem compiling the files when you select xelatex instead of pdflatex.


You’re welcome to copy, borrow, and adapt to fit your context and outcomes. If there’s an opportunity to add some attribution, you can write

Unless other wise noted, resources are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC-BY) license by Peter Newbury This work is supported by the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia.


When a meteorite hits the surface of a planet or moon, it creates an impact crater. This picture of our Moon’s Mare Nubium and surrounding hills shows some of the Moon’s surface is quite smooth while other regions are covered in craters. By measuring the sizes and number of craters, astronomers can learn about the objects (called the “impactors”) that struck the surface and also about the ages of various regions on the planet’s surface.
An orrery is a mechanical model of the Solar System. When you turn a crank, the planets and moons orbit the Sun at correctly-scaled distances with correctly-scaled periods. In this tutorial, you and your classmates build a scale model of the Solar System by marking the locations of the visible planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, at regular intervals of time. Later, when you and your classmates step from location to location, you’ll reproduce the motion of the planets – a human orrery!
Every month, the Moon appears to change shape in the sky as it goes through phases from new Moon to full Moon and then back to new. Ancient civilizations used the phases of the Moon to track the passage of time. Today's Gregorian calendar no longer depends on the phases of the Moon but the Islamic, Hebrew and Chinese cultures still base festivals and holy days on the cycles of the Moon.

The more you understand the nature of the Moon's phases, the more you can appreciate how astronomy influences our culture and the better you'll be able to predict when important events like Ramadan, Hannukah, Easter and Lunar New Year will occur.

In this tutorial, you will explore the changing geometry of the Sun-Earth-Moon system that produces each phase of the Moon, and then the connection between the geometry and the time of day the Moon rises and sets.

Madden et al. (2020) use an adaptation of this activity in an interesting astronomy education research project that compares students' learning and experiences using VR, a desktop computer simulation, and this hands-on analog activity.
The Sun, stars and planets cross our sky in complicated patterns that depend on the Earth’s daily rotation around its tilted axis and its annual revolution of the Earth around the Sun. For thousands of years, astronomers have watched the sky, figured out the patterns and built “computers” so they could predict when and where the Sun, stars and planets rise and set each day. In this tutorial, you’ll use your 21st Century computer to explore the motion of the Sun.


Note: this activity was built using the NAAP Motions of the Sky Simulator which doesn't function any more. You can easily adapt the activity to a simulation that shows the path of the Sun across the sky.

(Credit: NASA/Tim Pyle)
Astronomers have discovered hundreds of planets orbiting other stars. These planets are in solar systems beyond ours so they are called “extrasolar” planets. A growing number extrasolar planets are found by the transit method. In the transit method, astronomers take precise, long term observations of the brightness (or “intensity”) of a star and create a light curve for the star. In this tutorial, you’ll explore the connections between light curves and extrasolar planets and learn how to decode the light curve. Then you’ll examine the light curve of a real star and discover the characteristics of the planet HD 209458b, the first transiting extrasolar planet ever found.

(Credit: Robert Gendler)
Stars are the building blocks of the Universe – there are billions of stars in our Galaxy and billions of galaxies in the Universe. To understand how the Universe works, we need to understand how stars work. In this tutorial, you'll create a concept map to organize the content, reveal relationships and patterns, and make the content easier to recall later.
(Image credit: : Mt. Wilson Archive, Carnegie Institution of Washington)
Since the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, the Universe has been expanding. We know that because we’re watching other galaxies follow a curious pattern: the farther away the galaxy, the faster it is moving away from us. This discovery, made by Hubble in 1929, is known as the Hubble Law. The Hubble Law comes with an optical illusion: it looks like we’re at the center of the Universe. Are we really that special? In this Tutorial, you’ll clear up this illusion.
In this activity, students investigate the quantities that determine the strength of the force of gravity between two objects, identifying what matters and how that quantity changes the force. So they can recognize and appreciate the inverse-square law of gravity, the students first play with an analogy: the amount of pain the cartoon character Fry feels when he looks are different sized light bulbs, from near and far and with open or squinting eyes. They do this through an “invention activity” (Schwartz and Martin, 2004) which are proven to increase students’ understanding of the new concept (gravity) and their ability to transfer that knowledge to other situations.
Look at the desk and look around the room. Seems pretty flat, doesn’t it? But the Earth isn’t flat, so why is the room? What about the Universe? Is it flat? Does it have positive curvature? Negative? How can we tell? In this activity, you’ll do experiments that explore the effects of curvature. The key to determining the shape is the number of degrees in a triangle.
White dwarfs and neutron stars are two bizarre forms of stellar corpses left behind after the star collapses. For a very massive star, though, nothing can stop its end-of-life collapse. The star becomes a black hole, one of the strangest and most extreme objects in the Universe. How extreme? Spacetime is so curved (or as Newton would say, “gravity is so strong”) not even light can escape once it falls into a black hole. What would happen to a star or a planet that gets too close to the black hole? In this tutorial, you’ll figure that out by watching a poor astronaut fall into the black hole of death!
The colour of a glowing gas, like a candle flame, the burner on a gas stove, or a star reveals its temperature: hotter gases glow blue, colder gases glow red. On more careful inspection, though, the light we receive from each gas contains an enormous amount of information: not just its temperature but also its chemical composition, motion and more. This information is found by decoding the spectrum of the gas. In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to “crack the code” and reveal what the glowing objects are made of.
Stars come in all colours and sizes, masses and brightnesses, ages, and distances. How can we possibly learn how stars work when each one appears to be unique? What we need are some relationships between the characteristics of stars. We already know that the colour of a star is directly related to the temperature of the star: red stars are cool, blue stars are hot. That means we don’t have to measure both colour and temperature – we get one from the other. Are there any other relationships? What does a “relationship” look like, anyway? And what does a relationship tell us about how stars work? In this tutorial, you’ll see what it means for characteristics to be related (or not related) and then see how to use the relationships.  

Building a Culture of Integrity, Part 3: What are the ways?

Over the last 9 months, I’ve had the privilege of working with a group of dedicated educators in the Dalhousie Faculty of Engineering to explore building a culture of integrity. In Part 1, I describe our faculty learning community where we read James Lang’s Cheating Lessons together. Part 2 is about a survey we ran with Engineering students and how we analyzed their responses. Here in Part 3, it all comes together with a resource we created for course instructors. Our analysis of responses and the resource for course instructors are still drafts. The co-authors are not ready to have their names appear in public so while I can’t give their names, I want to acknowledge these were collaborative projects and I wouldn’t have anything to write about without these colleagues.

Structures crack when they’re under too much stress. Redesign the structure to remove the excess stress and you stop it from cracking. The rise in academic integrity violations during the year of online teaching and learning is a crack in our teaching and learning practices.

Research into academic integrity1 shows that the way to reduce academic dishonesty is to create a learning environment where students are successful without resorting to dishonest practices and even if they stray, there is no benefit. Creating and maintaining this environment requires ongoing discussion, collaboration, and cooperation of faculty, students, and staff. Together, we can build a culture of integrity that enables more students to be more successful, reduces exam stress and anxiety on both students and faculty, and puts our students on the path to becoming professional engineers.

In June, 2021, Co-author 1 and Peter Newbury surveyed and interviewed 19 Engineering students about their experiences with academic integrity. Co-author 2, Co-author 3, and Peter Newbury coded and categorized their 109 responses to three questions. The most frequent responses are shown here, together with strategies you can use in your courses. The full report and analysis of the students’ responses is available upon request.

1. Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating lessons. Harvard University Press.

What are the ways I can make my course relevant to students?
You don’t need to link every concept and every example to a relevant application every single time. In fact, artificially forcing relevance into your lessons can demotivate students.

  • Periodically (perhaps once each week) motivate a new concept or example with an application or scenario from engineering practice or a specific field of research.
  • Wrap new concepts and skills in contexts that matter to students in this time, in this place, or in their personal lives so they immediately see the role and impact of engineering on their lives, family, friends, and community.
  • Connect learning outcomes, concepts, skills, and examples to the Graduate Attributes. Emphasize to your students that demonstrating the learning outcomes means they are becoming engineers.
  • Chat with the course instructors who teach courses after yours in the program so you can motivate new topics: “This will be important next Term when you study…”
  • Chat with the course instructors teaching the other courses your students are currently taking. Identify examples, applications, scenarios, or cases that combine concepts and skills from several courses.

What are the ways I can help my students handle the workload and manage their time?
Learning how to manage their time is a skill students are still developing. They may need guidance, especially in 1st year when experiences inside and outside the classroom are new to many.

  • Don’t overload your students: design your course so students can be successful with 6 – 9  hours of work per week (including lectures), 9 – 12 hours per week for courses with labs.
  • During the year of learning online, students appreciated it when course instructors suggested how to spend their time (“On Mondays, spend 2 hours watching videos and taking notes. On Tuesdays, begin the homework. On Wednesdays,…”) Continue to provide this guidance, even for in-person classes.
  • Work with your Department and your students’ other course instructors to coordinate the timing of your assignments, projects, quizzes, and midterm exams. Try to ensure students have no more than one assignment due, project deadline, quiz, or midterm on any day across all their courses.

What are the ways I can communicate effectively and connect with my students?
The year of online learning demonstrated Brightspace can be an effective tools for communicating with students. Continue to use Brightspace to make important announcements (including the ones you made aloud during your in-person classes.)

  • Students appreciate fewer, more comprehensive Brightspace announcements. Consider one (two at most) weekly announcement that includes all the information students need for the upcoming week.
  • Invite people with first-hand experience (students for student events, practicing engineers for community events) to announce extra-curricular events and opportunities.
  • Treat your students as professionals: they are on a path to becoming engineers and that path begins in 1st year.

Speaking of effective communication…

I recognize that course instructors are extremely busy, especially in the last few weeks before the first day of classes. To engage the most number of faculty in the limited amount of time, teaching resources need to be concise. During my time with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, we aimed to create “2-pagers” – that’s long enough to say something useful but short enough faculty will read it.

I enjoyed the challenge of distilling 9 months of work into 2 pages and using all my Excel and PowerPoint skills. I’m quite happy with this draft of the resource, Building a Culture of Integrity in Engineering – What are the ways (pdf). My thanks, again, to my co-authors.

Building a Culture of Integrity, Part 2: What we learned from students

Over the last 9 months, I’ve had the privilege of working with a group of dedicated educators in the Dalhousie Faculty of Engineering to explore building a culture of integrity. In Part 1, I describe our faculty learning community where we read James Lang’s Cheating Lessons together. Part 2 is about a survey we ran with Engineering students and how we analyzed their responses. Part 3 brings it all together with a resource we created for course instructors. Our analysis of responses and the resource for course instructors are still drafts. The co-authors are not ready to have their names appear in public so while I can’t give their names, I want to acknowledge these were collaborative projects and I wouldn’t have anything to write about without these colleagues.

Guided by recommendations in James Lang’s Cheating Lessons, we followed up our conversations about academic integrity with faculty by continuing the conversation into the community, namely, the Engineering students.

The Associate Dean and I invited students to join an online focus group about academic integrity in Engineering at Dalhousie. We did not want these discussions to be about cheating but rather, the culture and environment. The discussion (and the survey for students who were unable to join the meeting) revolved around these three questions:

  1. What would make the homework, lab reports, quizzes, exams, etc. meaningful to you, so that
    you’d want to use your time and attention to do it yourself?
  2. What are some factors making it difficult for students to do their own work?
  3. When we have a strategy for building this culture, how do we connect with students so they
    want to be a part of it?

We spoke with 7 students and 15 completed the survey. Between the notes I took during the meeting and the survey, we ended up with 109 responses.

Categorizing and analyzing the responses

Ever since my colleagues Beth Simon and Jared Taylor wrote their terrific article, “What is the Value of Course-Specific Learning Goals?” in 2009, I’ve been waiting for a project where I get to analyze student comments. It was important to me (and the Associate Dean) that we learn what the students are actually telling us, and not just seek confirmation of what we wanted to hear.

I recruited two members of the Cheating Lessons book club to help me sort and analyze the responses. My colleagues aren’t ready to have their names in public – this work and report is still a draft – so I’ll refer to them as F and P. Here’s what we did:

  1. I created an Excel spreadsheet with three worksheets, one for each question. Each worksheet had one student response per row, with a unique identifier (so we could later talk about Response #16, etc.). I sent the spreadsheet to F and P.
  2. Each of us independently read through the responses and created 3 or 4 “buckets” or categories of responses for each question. The idea is to let the categories emerge from the responses, rather than creating categories ahead of time (and risking simply confirming what we wanted to hear.)
  3. We met to compare categories. Some were identical, some were different words for the same idea, and a few were different. We reached consensus on three categories for each question.
  4. I reformatted the Excel spreadsheet, still with one student response per row and now 3 new columns, one for each category. I sent the spreadsheet to F and P.
  5. Each of us independently re-read all the responses, assigning each response to one of the categories. F and P sent me their spreadsheets.
  6. I merged all three spreadsheets together to show how each of us categorized each student response. I used Fleiss’ kappa to calculate the inter-rater reliability. It’s an index between 0 (no agreement) and 1 (total agreement) that normalizes for random agreement (3 monkeys would agree occasionally). That Wikipedia page, btw, is very good and I followed the step-by-step example.
  7. We met to compare how we categorized the responses. We completely agreed on the majority, were split on some, and completely disagreed on a handful of responses. We discussed that handful of responses and how we interpreted the what the student said. A few “Ohh!” and “Ahh!” later, we’d reached consensus. We also agreed to categorize any split response in the majority category.
  8. With every response now categorized, I repeated the inter-reliability calculation:
    Question Number of responses Fleiss’ kappa Interpretation
    What would make the homework, lab reports, quizzes, exams, etc. meaningful to you, so that you’d want to use your time and attention to do it yourself? 48 0.745 Substantial agreement
    What are some factors making it difficult for students to do their own work? 37 0.725 Substantial agreement
    When we have a strategy for building this culture, how do we connect with students so they want to be a part of it? 24 0.483 Moderate agreement

    I’m glad we had good agreement on question 1 (“meaningful”) and question 2 (“factors”). I’m not too worried about our lower agreement on question 3 (“how to connect”) as that was asking for their suggestions rather than learning about their experiences.

What did the students tell us?

When investigating inter-rater reliability and analysis of responses, I learned it’s good to present a “code book” along with the data that names the categories, defines the categories, and gives sample responses.

What would make the homework, lab reports, quizzes, exams, etc. meaningful to you, so that you’d want to use your time and attention to do it yourself?

We asked students, “What would make the homework, lab reports, quizzes, exams, etc. meaningful to you, so that you’d want to use your time and attention to do it yourself?” Twenty of the 48 comments are about relevance, 14 are about assessment and marks, and 14 are about support.
Category Description Sample Responses
Relevance Make the work relevant to: (i) the material in the course, (ii) the material in other courses, (iii) industry, and (iv) career aspirations. • I’m more inclined to do work when I’m also taught how it applies to industry or how it applies to other skills I will apply in the future as an engineer.
• I think they typically mean a lot to me anyway, but to make it more meaningful, I feel like I would be more motivated to do them if it were related to solving real world problems that have had a big impact in the communities I’m a part of (for example, working on engineering projects that deal with the SDGs and so on).
Assessment, Marks Ensure the reward (i.e., marks) justifies the effort expended in completing the assignment (i.e., the assessment). • Sometimes work doesn’t feel like it’s worth the time (long assignment, takes all weekend for 1%, when another assignment is worth 10%).
• Work is meaningful to me if there is a grade attached to it. I have had experiences where homework and labs are not for a grade which discourages students from doing the work since there are other classes that we have.
Support Provide adequate preparation and support mechanisms so students feel capable and confident in undertaking the assignment on their own. This could involve ensuring the learning objectives of the assignment are thoroughly explained and understood. • Let 1st years know they have support.
• Having sufficient resources is important – e.g. when class is all theory but then homework is application and students don’t know how to do it, they look elsewhere (like Chegg) for help (e.g. a course with classes involving theory and simple examples, but homework that involves complex problems). Have assignments with a range of questions that build.

What are some factors making it difficult for students to do their own work?

We asked students, “What are some factors making it difficult for students to do their own work?” Of the 37 responses, 15 are about workload and time management, 12 are about (the lack of) support, and 10 are about (the lack of) motivation.
Category Description Sample Responses
Workload, Time Management Workload demands in a given course and throughout the program leading to stress on students to perform well and meet all course expectations. Student and professor time management issues. • Something to note: it takes time to organize your time. Knowing assignment weights for prioritization, knowing deadlines, being able to find assignments easily, being able to find notes easily to solve problems, and even knowing what is expected on exams and how they will be formatted.
• I think for all engineering students, the workload is very heavy which can make it difficult to complete all work individually. It is still possible to do it individually, but I believe that the workload does play a role in making it difficult for students to complete work individually.
(Lack of) Support Issues with required support systems and course resources. • I also think that an overall lack of support from professors and TAs makes it difficult for students to do their own work because they aren’t getting enough help with difficult subjects. The student to TA ratio is often too large for students to be able to comfortably ask meaningful questions. As a result, students are less likely to do their own work because they are confused about what is going on.
• Although professors and faculty are making a valiant effort to provide extra support for students, I think some students still feel a bit overwhelmed and unsure how to get appropriate support online. Overall, online learning seems to be quite a bit more difficult for most students, especially the aspect of not being able to learn in a classroom or be surrounded by peers and professors, as that is the environment a lot of students thrive in most.
(Lack of) Motivation Motivational issues for students. • When instructors aren’t engaged, don’t appear to want to be there, then students are less engaged, more likely to get help from elsewhere.
• When instructors are clear about expectations, students engage more, try to do it themselves.

When we have a strategy for building this culture, how do we connect with students so they want to be a part of it?

We asked students, “When we have a strategy for building this culture, how do we connect with students so they want to be a part of it?” Twelve of the 24 responses mention effective communication, 8 are about ethics and professionalism, and 4 are about collaboration and building community.
Category Description Sample Responses
Effective Communication (the Mode) Engage in effective, well-thought-out communications with individuals and groups. • Communicate through student leaders – students listen to them. Through Dal Eng Society. I think the strategy should be spread via the student representatives.
• Orientation aimed mostly at 1st year, though programs have orientation for 3rd year students coming from Associated Universities.
• Brief updates usually capture students’ attention better than long ones. So, if a strategy is made, whatever mediums it is transmitted over, I guess keep it concise and remind them of its purpose and incentive.
Ethics, Professionalism (the Message) Appeal to the integrity of all involved in the engineering education process; draw on the P.Eng. Code of Ethics. • Throughout the program we get many lectures about integrity (CPST, history of engineering, law and ethics). People understand that if an engineer makes a mistake it can cost lives. We learn about the different historical events and because there is a process in getting the P.Eng. stamp, I believe this process will give you engineers with integrity. I don’t believe that there is much more on the university side that can be done. At some point it is up to the person to decide what type of engineer/person they want to be.
• Phrase it as something that will strengthen their career and not just create obstacles in school.
Collaboration, Community Look for opportunities to encourage collaboration where permitted. Provide opportunities for students to create a sense of community within and outside the classroom. • Make communal spaces where students can work together on assignments and projects, possibly grouped by discipline.
• Round table discussions – especially in person.
• Also hosting fun events so they can socialize with each other and become a greater community. Online classes have made students lose the sense of community within their faculty.

I’m really happy with how we carried out the analysis and also with the results. So are my co-authors, F and B. And so is the Associate Dean who immediately took the next step and asked me, “Okay, so what are the ways I can make my course more relevant to students?” That was the spark for the next step of this project: a campaign based on education. In Part 3 of this series, I’ll share the resource we created for course instructors in Engineering.