Category Archives: Uncategorized

5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations: A Long Introduction

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, tslater@caperteam.com


This post is the first of a monthly series of rather long blog posts on innovative college astronomy teaching.

This post includes teaching advice on the topics of how students approach end-of-course evaluations; how many math problems to work; how to motivate students from the first day; and the AAS Advocated #ASTRO101 Teaching Goals.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The journey to learning to teach astronomy can often seem like you’re the lead character in Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.  If you don’t understand the obscure reference, don’t worry.  As it turns out, when you teach astronomy, you’ll also introduce references intended to help connect students to your class to which some of your students immediately identify with, while others completely miss the connection.Tale of Two Cities Book Cover Image

For most of us, the long and winding road to becoming an expert astronomy professor starts with the highest of expectations and the very best of intentions.  All too quickly, many of those hopes and dreams are dashed and broken against the metaphorical rocks; within days you can’t find enough time to adequately prepare your detailed lecture notes, students bring a dizzying array of reasons why they couldn’t pay attention in class-if they were there at all, and students’ exam performance turns out to be far lower than you ever imagined.  Then, adding insult to injury, at the end of the course, you get to muster as much grit and resilience as you can to prop up what’s remaining of your self-esteem for the all-to-personal commentary soon-to-be-levied on your teaching performance by student teaching evaluations.  What seems worse, is that these student-completed teaching evaluations will be collected from students before the course is even over and students can see the final fruit of the harvest, never allowing you the chance to correct any misunderstandings or misperceptions students might have about your course.  Perhaps things will get better next time you teach the course…or perhaps not.

Astronomy Cartoon Image: All Stars Are AlikeMost of us are left with the question of, what else could I do?  Could I give more precisely articulated lectures with better illustrations?  Maybe I need to insert some humor?  Perhaps I should get rid of that stuffy-archaic textbook and let students read free assigned material from the Internet?  Maybe I just need to give students detailed study-sheets to better help them prepare for exams?  Or, maybe it’s not me after all—could it be the inadequacy of those student-evaluation feedback forms, because a simple bubble-sheet form with a short space for comments couldn’t possibly be the right tool to get accurate feedback from my occasionally apathetic students?

Maybe little of the above scenario accurately describes your teaching experiences, or captures any concerns you imagine about your future teaching experiences.  Alternatively, maybe you’ve got a class design that is working exceptionally well and you are looking for ways to fine tune and supercharge it.   In either case, we’ve learned a lot about teaching over the last twenty years and we’d like to share what wev’e learned with you under the goal of:

providing busy faculty with easy-to-implement teaching strategies that dramatically improve the student learning experience.

Some of what we’ve learned comes from recent insights gleaned from systematic studies of teaching and learning from the field of astronomy education research.  Other ideas have come from adaptations the writings of scholars working in cognitive science and the learning sciences.   But, most of our perspectives have been born from our personal battles and in-the-trenches experiences teaching thousands of college students about the wonders of the world stretching beyond Earth’s atmosphere.  If you’ll come along with us on this journey, we’ll share what we’ve learned with you in the hopes that you can avoid many of the same mistakes we’ve made, and ultimately become your students’ compassionate teacher through this fascinating universe –and live to tell the tale.


Improving Your Course Evaluations

We’ll begin our journey with an end in mind, improving the end-of-term student evaluations of your course.  We’ll should be honest with you and tell you that a sneak-peek to the end of this journey will reveal that we actually have intentions to transform your classroom into a learning machine.  As it turns out, transforming your classroom to focus on student learning rather than on your teaching performance has the side-effect of improving your course evaluations too.

Course Evaluation Example ImageLet’s start with what doesn’t work.  A quick Internet search on improving your class will yield a long list of things virtually guaranteed to improve your course evaluations: having students call you by your first name, wearing casual clothes, telling jokes and stories of sex and violence from the field, starting every class blaring popular music, and, the most universal recommendation, bringing donuts to class on evaluation day.  These ideas are often accompanied by notions that students want a professor who is cool, doesn’t make them work very hard, and gives everyone good grades.  All of these ideas have the same thing in common: They don’t work.  Really.

You might not know this, but there are entire University Departments of brilliant scholars who study higher education, and have been doing so for many years.  They’ve developed an entire body of literature on college classes and they have studied the course evaluation issue from every possible angle and analyzed every imaginable piece of data.  What they’ve learned might simultaneously terrify you and make you feel better.

When students read the questions on one of the many course evaluation forms available to colleges—and some of these forms are quite long—students reinterpret all of the items to be one of just two possible questions:

ONE:  Did the professor want to help me learn?

TWO:  Did the professor follow an organized plan?

That’s it.  All those questions so laboriously worded about the extent to which the professor is creating respectful learning environments, being responsive to student questions, holding office hours, having detailed knowledge of the class content, and returning graded work on time need to be thrown completely out the window.  Students simply reword them in their own mind into just two.  These two are so important, it seems worth stating them again for enhanced emphasis:


ONE:  Did the professor want to help me learn?

TWO:  Did the professor follow an organized plan?


We view this as a wildly fortunate opportunity because both of these ideas are actionable.  In other words, there are specific, concrete things you can do to enhance students’ answers to these questions when they apply them to you and your class.  You don’t have to follow any of our recommendations here – but you do so at the peril of your course evaluations.

The reason that focusing on these two questions works so well is what underlies them.  At the end of a 15-week course with you, where students spend nearly 45 hours with you—and perhaps allocate even substantially more time cumulatively engaging with astronomy by reading, doing homework, completing assigned laboratory exercise and astronomical observation tasks, and preparing for exams—most students really want one thing: to be different as a result of this extended experience.

As a quick aside to the genuine skeptic who pauses and says, “Uh, wait a minute, some of my students just don’t want to learn astronomy. What about them?”  You’re absolutely right.  We concede that some students don’t want to learn astronomy.  In fact, we’re willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that nearly all of your students fall into this category.  I mean, in most introductory astronomy survey classes, you have no astronomy majors.  In fact, you probably have no science majoring students at all.  Many of these students have already decided years ago that they aren’t “science people” and are only taking your course because they needed a liberal arts, general education course to fulfill a science course elective requirement.  We agree.  This is often who is in your class.

Its a Dirty Jobs Image from TelevisionHowever, we’d like to consider, if even for only a moment, a radically different perspective.  A single change in perspective might be all you need to dramatically transform your course from an experience to be endured by students to one that is life-long transformative for students.  The perspective is this:

What if it was your JOB as the professor to help students love astronomy?

Adopting this alternate perspective dramatically changes the astronomy course as something done TO students into something done FOR students.  Let’s take a quick reality check here: It’s not hard to teach people about astronomy who already love astronomy.  In fact, it might be argued that a professor would have to intentionally try to be unsuccessful at teaching students who already love astronomy.  We content that nearly anyone could do tackle that simple task.  Yes, we know that happens, but that’s not what we’re talking about.  Instead, what we want you to do is to be highly successful at teaching students who enter your classroom already convinced they don’t love astronomy.  If you organize your class for these hard-to-reach students, nearly everyone wins—even those students who enrolled in your class correctly thinking astronomy is awesome.

What Are the Goals of Your Class?

If the task at hand is to create a class that results in students loving astronomy—which we believe is a highly worthwhile goal—what should your formal course goals be?

it doesn't matter which way you go if you don't know where you are goingMost colleges strongly suggest, if not require, that course syllabi explicitly list course goals.  We agree.  If students and their professors specify what students are supposed to learn and what professors are supposed to teach, you have a much better chance of success.  The converse isn’t very attractive.   Remember that the beloved Cheshire Cat in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland sagely said that if you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t much matter what you do.

We’ve already proposed one overarching goal, and we think you should tell your students what you want from them.  We promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised how that changes how they feel about you and your class.

YOUR GOAL: Students will LOVE astronomy.

Naturally, the next step is figure how are you going to help them achieve such a lofty goal.  We’re going to advocate that we don’t talk about the details of how just yet, but instead focus on the what.  Don’t worry, we’ll get to precise recipes for you to use soon enough; however, the tools and techniques might not make any sense unless we provide just a little more context.

Who Are They and What Do They Want?

You are probably fortunate to have a wide diversity of students in your class.  Just look at your students. Your students come in all different sizes, colors and ages—just like a beautiful cluster of galaxies.  And in much the same way, the most interesting parts of galaxies are the underlying mechanisms and processes, things far deeper than their superficial good looks.  If you’ve got a wide variety of students, then you need a wide variety of techniques to understand them.

Folklore long shared from professor to professor tells that there is an unresolvable conflict between you and your students.  On one hand, so the story goes, professors want students to learn as much as possible and, on the other, students want to learn as little as possible.  If you tacitly hang on to this false dichotomy, teaching astronomy isn’t going to be nearly as pleasant as it could be.

What if you reframed it to be a win-win?  What if what professors really wanted was for their students to start to love astronomy and what if, at the same time, students most desired to be different and be transformed by enrolling in your class?  That’s a vastly different frame of reference and begs the question, what is it that professors want their students to know about astronomy?

When we asked hundreds of astronomy professors what they thought the goals of their astronomy class should be, we were prepared for a really long list.  After all, we are talking about professors whose job it is to teach about the entire universe, often in a single course!  To our pleasant surprise, we found that nearly all their responses clumped into three big ideas.  They emphatically told us that they wanted their courses to engender in students:

  1. an appreciation for the size, scale, and structure of the cosmos, including understanding the predictable motions of the night sky,
  2. an understanding of the nature of science and how astronomy is done, and
  3. an interest in studying current new events in astronomy as a life-long learning activity.

Not a single person, even as a joke, listed that they wanted their students to memorize our Sun’s diameter or the number of kilometers in a light-year.  If we read between the lines here, what we see is that many people want their students to love astronomy too. Almost nothing in this list looks like memorizing a long list of fragmented facts and formula.  We’d like you to consider the possibility that your seemingly apathetic students might buy into these three goals too.


We’re certainly not the only people to wrestle with this question.  The elder-statesmen of the American Astronomical Society also posed the question of what is it that college students completing an introductory survey course in astronomy should understand.  After laborious meetings on both coasts of the United States, they came up with the following list of astronomy content goals and values goals:


AAS Astronomy Content Goals

Students should gain:

  • A cosmic perspective—a broad understanding of the nature, scope, and evolution of the Universe, and where the Earth and Solar System fit in
  • An understanding of a limited number of crucial astronomical quantities, together with some knowledge of appropriate physical laws
  • The notion that physical laws and processes are universal
  • The notion that the world is knowable, and that we are coming to know it through observations, experiments, and theory (the nature of progress in science)
  • Exposure to the types, roles, and degrees of uncertainty in science
  • An understanding of the evolution of physical systems
  • Some knowledge of related subjects (e.g., gravity and spectra from physics) and a set of useful “tools” from related subjects such as mathematics
  • An acquaintance with the history of astronomy and the evolution of scientific ideas (science as a cultural process)
  • Familiarity with the night sky and how its appearance changes with time and position on Earth

AAS Skills, Values and Attitudes Goals

  1. Students should be exposed to:
  • The excitement of actually doing science
  • The evolution of scientific ideas (science as a cultural process)
  1. Students should be introduced to how science progresses and receive training in:
  • The roles of observations, experiments, theory, and models
  • Analyzing evidence and hypotheses
  • Critical thinking, including appropriate skepticism
  • Hypothesis testing (experimental design and following the implications of a model)
  • Quantitative reasoning and the ability to make reasonable estimates
  • The role of uncertainty and error in science
  • How to make and use spatial – geometrical models
  1. Courses and professors should leave students:
  • More confident of their own critical faculties
  • Inspired about science in general and astronomy in particular
  • Interested in and better equipped to follow scientific arguments in the media.

We content that this is a reasonably good list from a group of very well intentioned professional astronomers.  It might not be perfect, but it’s a place to start our discussion.  You are welcome to disagree with some of the fine details here and there just as we do, but you’ve got to start somewhere and your Departmental colleagues might commend you for using this AAS-endorsed list. More to the point, if you match these concepts—or any reasonable list of concepts for that matter—with your passionate and unwavering goal of helping students love astronomy, it becomes an exceptionally good launching point.    But, knowing “what to teach” is only part of the battle: You also need to know to “how” to teach if you are going to make a course that unequivocally demonstrates to students that you want to help them learn and, simultaneously, you follow an organized plan to help them learn.

How Do I Motivate These Students?

Although we all wish it were otherwise, your students have every reason to assume you’re not really coming to class each day to help them learn or that you will actually follow an obviously organized pathway to get them there.  This is due in part to students having had more than a decade of learning experiences before taking your class, some overwhelmingly positive, and many others not so much.  Your students are also probably taking several other classes during the same semester you’re teaching them.  It will be useful to you if you are compassionately sensitive to the fact that college students have numerous distractions and requirements across different professors in disconnected courses with contrasting demands adding to their long-history of widely varying school-learning experiences.

That’s a lot to consider, and we beg you to stay with us.  What you’ll discover by the time you finish this journey is that there is a whole lot more to teaching astronomy than standing at the front of the room and accurately saying all the right words in front of pretty pictures; if that is all that was required, we’d simply hire out of work Hollywood actors to stand and deliver information. Colleges don’t hire actors to teach because it turns out that your scientific expertise is a vitally necessary condition to successful teaching when you have to goal of helping students to love astronomy.  But, although your astronomy expertise is necessary, it isn’t sufficient by itself.  There are lots of highly knowledgably people who can’t teach their way out of the legendary wet paper sack.

In the day-to-day science of astronomy, we often encounter complex systems with numerous, interacting variables.  When this happens, we often organize our thinking into a model that can be used to test ideas and make predictions.  In much the same way, we can apply this powerful idea of using models to manage some of our astronomy teaching-decisions and make some predictions about which teaching approaches will likely work and which are probably doomed to fail a priori.  Let’s consider a model describing the variables of student motivation about loving astronomy.

motivation road sign imageAstronomers sometimes think that motivation is a vaguely vague thing, but there are highly-respected scholars from the opposite side of campus who have thought carefully about motivation.  They describe student motivation toward learning something as a robust mixture of three distinct things: is there value in the task, what is the probability of success, and is there supportive help available?  Let’s consider each of these in turn.

Value

The first component of motivation to learning something is based on an assessment of value.  In other words, students ask themselves, “des this class help me meet my goals?  Students’ first answer might be related to intrinsic value of education and the wonders of the universe, but more than likely not.  Unless you rationally and intentionally convince students otherwise, their values naturally are inclined to meeting social goals, graduation goals, career goals, and the like.  If you want students to have different motivation stemming from something else they should value, then you as the professor will need to put in purposeful effort to change the value-proposition. To be blunt, the position that students should enter college already valuing astronomy and that professors’ have no responsibility to change students thinking is academically pleasant, but naively foolhardy.

Perhaps unintentionally, too many professors do precisely the opposite of selling their course’s value to students. The fastest way to reduce the “value” a student sees in your class is to put your class in conflict with things that the student values more:  their graduation, their job, their kids or their family. This might surprise you because you might not have noticed that college today is vastly different that the college’s we went to. Remember only 15% of college students nationally are traditional, non-working, dorm-living, college-aged students.  If you have an attitude that your lecture is more important than other values students have—whether or not you agree with those values—you’re going to reduce their motivation.  Fortunately, there are easy-to-implement tactics available to you to instead increase the perceived value of your course.

      Probability of Success

The second component of motivation to learning something is based on a student’s calculation of the probability of learning astronomy in your class.  In other words, students ask themselves, “Can I do this thing that I have to do for this class?

Many of your students have had less than successful experiences in the past with science courses, and perhaps more detrimentally, in mathematics courses.  Perhaps some of your students’ were forced to participate in a K-12 science fair and none of their plants grew, resulting in them thinking science isn’t for them.  Maybe some of your students struggled with their pre-algebra class and gave up on the possibility of being successful in courses that feature numbers and arithmetic a long, long time ago.  You might find that you need to make sure you class doesn’t look anything like unsuccessful experiences your students have had in the past.  One time-tested strategy to efficiently convince your wary students that astronomy is going to be yet another unsuccessful and unpleasant experience is to emphasize the importance of strictly using unfamiliar metric units in the seemingly complex mathematical formulas of astronomy on the very first day of class.

      Availability of Supportive Help

The third component of motivation to learning something is based on a student’s assessment of if there is help and support in learning astronomy.  In other words, students ask themselves, “Is the professor going to help me learn this?” and “Is there an organized course structure that will help me learn this?

We’re still amazed at the number of professors who proudly tell us that they always explain to their students on the first day of class that about 1/3 of their students drop their class.  This is reminiscent of the age-old story of professors trying unsuccessfully to motivate their students to work hard in their class by instructing their students to look first to their right, and then to look to their left, and then informing students that by the midterm exam, one of them will no longer be in the class.  The problem is that this approach works really well: Many students naturally give up before they even start.

Instead, knowledgably professors know that their students are making this calculation and purposefully build their entire course organizational structure around supporting student-success.  To the uninformed professors who haven’t thought about this, they might naively think that professors interested in student motivation are simply dumbing down their courses or catering to students by making things less than rigorous.  The problem is that unmotivated students simply don’t learn.  These students also appropriately give professors lousy course evaluation scores. In stark contrast, professors who explicitly organize their course based on supporting students’ learning are more than half-way toward becoming an award-winning astronomy teaching guru.  The hidden secret that no one says out loud is that building a highly organized course makes life profoundly easier on busy professors too.  Later, we’ll give you the tools you need to build a student motivation-enhancing syllabus.


Can’t I Just Work Problems?

One more thing that must be described in this foundation building post. Many professors assigned to teach introductory astronomy have some experience, or considerable experience, teaching introductory physics.  If you are one of those few lucky physicists who are assigned to teach astronomy, you need to know that you’re starting out a disadvantage.  Many of the important skills you’ve perfected teaching physics to science-majors are well-poised to interfere with the best of teaching intentions.

We propose that there are at least two distinct places where you’re going to have to consider major changes in order to be successful: working physics problems and international systems of units.  Let’s first talk about working problems in class before going to the thornier problem of selecting the appropriate unit system to use in teaching introductory astronomy.

Teaching with Physics Problems

We can all readily agree that astronomy is a quantitative science at its core.  We can also agree that many astronomy courses are taught within the context of a college Department of Physics.  Moreover, many of your colleagues will perceive your class to be more rigorous if students are frequently reaching for their scientific calculators, like their physics students do. Given these three facts, it seems only natural that an astronomy course could be taught with the successful techniques of a physics course.  Moreover, teaching an astronomy course that is reflective of a physics course has the added benefit of disabusing students of the misconception that astronomy is all about picking out constellations in the night sky. Unfortunately, adopting this perspective is a guaranteed way to earn low teaching evaluations.

You might be asking yourself, what am I supposed to do during class time if it isn’t work example problems on the board?  Or, you might be saying to yourself, what will exams look like if I’m not grading their ability to solve numerical word problems?  These are reasonable questions. Again, we’ll implore you to digest the rest of the ideas proposed here: By the end, we’ll think you’ll wonder how you’ll have time to do all the classroom things you want to do rather than endlessly work example problems on the board.

As an interim suggestion for now, we suggest that you adopt as read-alert, all-engines-stop, warning that things in your class aren’t going well anytime a student reaches for a calculator.  Really.  Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to teach your students to engage in juicy, high-level mathematical reasoning in astronomy.  To give you a brief glimpse of where we are going, we’ll show you how to do mathematics with your students by eliminating boring and perhaps pointless plug-and-chug arithmetic from your class.

Selecting Units of Measurement 

Much of astronomy is concerned with systematically solving the mysteries of how big and how far.  You can’t escape using numbers to describe how many planets in the solar system, how big is the Sun, and how far are we from the center of the Milky Way.  We’re not suggesting that you don’t use numbers, far from it. Instead, we’re warning you upfront that you should be compassionately sensitive to how non-science majoring astronomy students can viscerally respond when they encounter long tables of large numbers laced with unfamiliar units.

For Centuries, physics teaching professors have helped their students see intrinsic value the metric system.  The benefits of a 10-based measurement system are undeniable, especially when contrasted with the archaic system used in the United States.  A problem solving strategy that involves converting any numbers in an end-of-chapter word problem into the meter-kilogram-seconds paradigm is a time-tested problem solving strategy leading to success.  Taken together, a professor might naturally assume that astronomy should be taught using metric units.

A long-standing debate in the teaching of astronomy at the college level—and science in general—is whether to teach using metric SI units or customary US-standard units.  At first glance the argument seems to be based on two juxtaposed positions.  On one hand, US college students are largely unaware of the metric system and therefore need to be provided values for distance in more familiar units.  On the other hand, real science is actually done in metric units and students studying in a science class should use the language conventions of science.  It is this second position—authentic science uses metric units—that most college science faculty adopt.  A cursory survey of most astronomy textbooks reveals that most distance values are given in metric units (with US-standard units often provided parenthetically) in the narrative sections, with data tables using metric units most frequently.  This seems like an issue closed to debate.

If you didn’t grow up in the United States, you might not know that the question of which system of units to teach under has been a raging debate for decades, at least. The United States’ historical efforts to go-metric have been a complete failure and are relatively well-known.  We don’t have space here—in any unit system—to delve deeply into the US’s metrification attempts, such as unfruitful efforts to change all US highway road signs to metric, which I believe only still exist south of Tucson.

Rigorous education research shows is that people—and even some scientists—conceptualize sizes and scales based on benchmark landmarks and mental reference points from their experiences. Most college students naturally tend to think of the world in terms of objects that are: small, person-sized, room-sized, field-sized, shopping mall-sized and college campus-sized objects, big and really big.  The greatest impacts on how people develop these benchmarks are outside-the-classroom experiences involving measuring movement—walking, biking, car travel—as opposed to school experiences where they have rote memorized numbers from tables. Consistently, it is to these common experience anchors that college students use various measurement scales.

For us teaching astronomy, we use our extensive experience as scientists in quantifying the world to automatically and often unawareingly change between scales.  For example, when measuring the distance between Earth and Neptune, we automatically know if we should describe it in meters, astronomical units, or light-travel-time, depending on why an astronomer would want to describe such a distance.  For experts, using meters, AU, and ly is readily interchangeable whereas for most college students, these are three totally separate determinations.  This disconnect between you and your students requires your careful attention.

When I ask my students how far it is from where they are sitting to the front entrance of the building, or to the city with the state capital, they can usually give me a reasonably close answer using units of their OWN choosing, often it is time in minutes or hours, or in distances like American football field-yards or miles.  If I specify the units their answers must be in, such as feet or kilometers, my college students generally have no idea.

Experts are fundamentally different than students.  We readily move between parsecs and light-years, whereas our novice students cannot—no matter how much we wish they could.  As it turns out, if students could easily move between measurement systems, they wouldn’t be novices, they’d be experts and we teachers might be out of a job.  In other words, we can’t simply tell students that a meter is about a yard, and two miles is about 3 kilometers and be done with it—if it was that easy, we’d have done that already and there would be no ongoing debate.

One might naturally think that astronomy students should be able to easily memorize a few benchmark sizes (e.g., Earth’s diameter is 12, 742 km and an astronomical unit is 1.4960 E 8 kilometers) and then they could handle almost anything by subdividing or multiplying.  The problem is that the characteristic of an expert, as compared to a novice, is that experts chunk ideas more easily, allowing experts to make quick estimates.  Novices have no strategies e available to be able to do this.  The bottom line here is that astronomy students rarely have a well-developed sense of scales going beyond their human-body size and experience with movement from one place to another.

If you’re still following this long discussion, what we’re saying here is when a professor says a comet is 10,000-m across, the Sun’s diameter is 1.4 million-km, the Virgo cluster is 16.5 Mpc, and a quasar is at a “z of 7”, students either have to stop being active listeners to your lecture for 30-seconds and figure out what those units mean and, subsequently, then inadvertently miss what you really wanted them to know, or they have to ignore any and all referenced numbers all together so that they can keep paying attention.

The teaching challenge here is that I suspect the most important thing you want students to take away from a lecture about a quasar at a z of 7 isn’t precisely how far away it is, but instead what it tells you about the nature of the universe.  The risk here is that introducing numbers and unfamiliar units gets in the way of the ideas you are most likely trying to teach.

The research alluded to earlier points to using relative sizes as being more fruitful for helping students learn than absolute, numerical sizes.  Expert teachers try to rely on things students are most familiar with and then help students to use simple, whole number ratios.  For example, experienced astronomy teachers on North America is about three Texas’ wide, the Moon is about one North America, Earth is about four Moon’s, Betelgeuse is 1,000 times larger than the Sun, and …. Notice we don’t have to type very many of these ratios before you yourself start skimming to the end of this paragraph: That’s the same experience your students too often have. Fortunately, many modern astronomy textbooks now give planet sizes in Earth-radii, just like we have long given solar system distances in astronomical-unit Earth-orbit sizes. I think this is a really good starting place. After all, five years from now when you run into an alumni student, do you really want the one thing that they most remember about your class to be the distance to the Crab Nebula in parsecs?

Across the domain of astronomy, there are countless astronomical ideas with which I want my students to engage.  We propose that you adopt the position that you help your students deeply engage in physical processes and causality of astronomy, stimulated by wonder and curiosity.  To do this, you’ll need to choose to give up on allocating the time necessary to fully teach the metric system and focus all of your available efforts on teaching things in terms of relative sizes and avoid using a self-defeating calculator-task whenever possible.

To say again for emphasis sake: Experienced mathematics teachers will tell you that you can’t really teach the metric system with a single 15-minute lecture to novices. Teaching the metric system takes a commitment throughout the entire course.  The notion that metric is easy because it is all base-10 is nonsense when it comes to teaching astronomy, despite my desire for it to be otherwise.

Reprise: Who Gets the Best Teaching Evaluations?

Excellent Check Box imageAs we maintained from the beginning, we again promise that astronomy can be a highly rewarding class to share with avowed non-science students.  This requires you to adopt some bold new perspectives that are clustered around changing your emphasis from being about what do you say in each class instead to how do I build something students value as both a supportive learning environment and organized class pathway?  Would you entertain the profound notion that if every one of your students felt personally valued and important to you, you could more easily help them learn to love astronomy?

The 5 essential tools you need are specified in this series of blog posts.  They are all easy-to-implement.  Moreover, they based on timeless principles of how to engage people in learning.  We’ll provide several options within each tool, because classrooms vary from one place to the next.  At the same time, precisely how you use the tools will vary depending on your teaching experience and comfort level.  What we can promise you is that nearly everyone who commits to using them never goes back to their old ways of lecturing to students.  This is a powerful toolkit that we are sharing so that you can improve your teaching of astronomy.

5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101

Fortunately, the hardest part is making the mental adjustment from an old perspective of everything being about you to a new perspective where all decisions are made in the interest of the student.  Once you’ve made that paradigm shift, everything will start to fall into place.  Not only will you get better teaching evaluation scores, but your students will actually learn astronomy and you’ll enjoy teaching your students even more than you do now.


The anticipated upcoming posts in this extended innovative college astronomy series are:


Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

How Sexual Harassment Gossip Interrupts Improving Astronomy Teaching

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, tim@caperteam.com

Most of us want basically the same things in our teaching—for our ASTRO 101 students to be informed about astronomy and, simultaneously, think that astronomy is awesomely cool.  To reach such a worthy goal as a community of astronomy educators, we have to learn and share from one another.

Learning and sharing to become a better astronomy teacher takes courage.  Most astronomers have been schooled to think that they can expand their reach to solve any problem and that their opinions are automatically well informed.  That posture doesn’t get us very far. To become a better teacher, one has to have sufficient courage to declare that they don’t know everything there is to know about good teaching.

Most ideas about teaching are not new; but not everyone knows the old ideas,” says Euclid.

Moreover, learning how to teach astronomy better this year than you did last year from (or with) someone else requires mutual respect and trust.  Unfortunately, broad swaths of our astronomy community are suffering from a lack of mutual respect and trust.  Far too much of this is due to the ongoing and disgustingly UN-discerning rumor mill surrounding sexual harassment.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education headline says that one in four women have been sexually assaulted. Sexual harassment and sexual assault can be terrible and disgusting things.  No one should have to participate in a sexual quid-pro-quo in order to advance professionally in one’s career.  And, no one should have to tolerate sexual assault—assault is a criminal act.  I know that these things do happen in astronomy too often, and are often unreported because the victim believes, or has been told, that their careers will be ruined if they reveal the perpetrator’s identity.  I know that these things have happened to people in my immediate academic family, and it is devastating. Less than ten years ago during her graduate school education, my wife was sexually assaulted, by a senior astronomy statesman, who told her he would ruin her career if she ever told anyone.

Although the precise details can vary from institution to institution, sexual harassment policy violations also can occur when someone is the target of unwanted sexual advances they are unable or unwilling to stop.  And, despite what the media seems to enjoy reporting, I understand that the most common sexual harassment policy infractions can occur when employees trying to meet their job requirements are unable to when they hear excessive sexual joking, banter, or innuendo.  This includes the sometimes extremely creepy and unwelcome “hugging” greeting.

It is no secret that sexual harassment has occurred within my own professional life.  More than a decade ago, a group of my colleagues and I violated my University’s sexual harassment policy by allowing a hostile work environment to exist that was characterized by sexual joking, banter, and innuendo that was both welcome and unwelcome, solicited, and unsolicited. These colleagues included Dr. Edward Prather and a number of post-docs, graduate students, and supervising administrators. I am reluctant to reveal confidential information that would embarrass or perhaps irreversibly damage the professional careers of those involved or who gave confidential testimony, as many who have put this incident far behind them would be put in a situation to deal with it again; and, it is unclear to me that these matters, from more than a decade ago, are the business of anyone outside of that group. As a result, all of us involved were required to participate in formal sexual harassment training. Further, Ed Prather and I took additional management training to help us be sure it didn’t happen in the future.

More than ten years later, the rumor mill now enthusiastically whispers that I am a serial sexual harasser. All ongoing gossip to the contrary, no further evidence of sexual harassment has ever been presented to a mandated investigative authority since that time. On the contrary, through multiple reviews, both the University of Arizona and the University of Wyoming formally determined that our conduct is sufficiently safe to grant both Dr. Prather and me tenured positions that require us to interact intensively with both undergraduate and graduate students.  Although it has been suggested that sexual harassment training doesn’t work, it definitely worked for me. I now continuously educate my graduate students—male and female—about sexual harassment and how to be sure it doesn’t happen, how to avoid being a victim, and how to report it when it is observed. We learned our lessons for how to make a more productive research team.

As evidence that I’m not a serial sexual harasser, in the last decade, my performance, including my interactions with faculty, students and staff, have been exhaustively reviewed no fewer than three times:

  • In 2006, the University of Arizona conducted a 360-degree management review of me that surveyed supervised employees, peer colleagues, and my supervisors. This review was voluntary. No piece of data related to sexual harassment was reported. If evidence had been found, another formal investigation would have ensued as required by US law, and this did not occur.
  • In 2008, when I was being recruited to my Distinguished Professorship at the University of Wyoming, a full inquiry by the University of Wyoming was conducted to be sure that I was not found guilty of any violations since a 2004 investigation of activity, conducted by the University of Arizona. No evidence was found, and I was awarded tenure and the rank of Full Professor.
  • In 2014, my Departmental colleges were investigated for a potential racial discrimination violation. In such an investigation, there were many opportunities for evidence of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination to be revealed.  No evidence in either case was revealed, and no violations were found by competent professionals trained in evaluating evidence for discrimination and harassment.

It would not be a large exaggeration to say that I have been subject to more instances of scrutiny than any other astronomy professor in the United States for more than a decade.  During that time, there has been no evidence of sexual harassment, and no finding of sexual harassment, within institutions that have a vested interest in finding and exterminating occurrences of this nature.

In the United States where I am a citizen, an individual’s employer is the mandated, competent authority for investigating sexual harassment violations.  Not a Facebook group, not a committee of a professional society, not an Academic Department, not even the Police Department. Over the course of the past decade, my two employers, the University of Arizona, where I was a tenured faculty member, and the University of Wyoming, where I am now a tenured full professor, holding an Endowed Chair for Excellence in Science Education, have received no complaints of sexual harassment, either through direct complaint, or through comment in any investigation that they have conducted on any faculty or department at their respective institutions.  If they had, they would be federally mandated to investigate and make a finding.  Obviously, this didn’t happen, although the rumor mill might make one think it did or perhaps that a University might have some vested interest in protecting sexual harassers.

My repeated observation is that gossip surrounding anything sexual can be painfully funny because it is rarely even scrutinized as plausible by those spreading the gossip themselves—that’s because juicy stuff is more fun to spread than facts!  Recently, I have been forwarded emails or seen online posts feeding the rumor mill about me that say completely false things.

NOW, TO RETURN TO OUR THESIS…

What does all of this talk about sexual harassment have to do with blocking the improvement of astronomy teaching?  The problem is that when uninvolved people hear that there has been a sexual harassment violation, they are often extremely quick to pass moral judgment, even when they don’t know all the facts or the contexts.  And, because most sexual harassment investigation reports are confidential in order to protect those who testify, people naturally fill in the blanks of what they don’t know with the worst or most juicy possible scenarios.  Even people who testify in the investigation itself rarely know all the details. What follows then is the rapid, widespread, and uncontrolled gossip about our peers—the rumor mill ensues destroying everyone and every actionable, good idea in its path.

Even though it has been more decade since our violation happened, I and my group members constantly run head-long into the destructive gossip-driven rumor mill.  This ongoing gossip blocks us from doing what we are really good at doing; helping professors be better and more effective teachers.

Even many years later, I still have been suddenly removed from professional mentoring-programs, asked not to speak at conferences, been denied grant funding to do faculty workshops at minority institutions, been questioned about if I should chair certain committees, and have been morally chastised online by people I have never met or spoken to, all because of what people continue to imply about an alleged and inflated history of sexual harassment.  When people do take the time to question rumors, they are easily corrected.  Today, it can be unnecessarily hard to recruit new graduate students, even when the numbers clearly show I have been very successful graduating female students, that my group still is predominately female, and that the journal I publish and the meetings I host feature female scientists more prominently than male scientists. No one ever seems to bother to actually talk to my graduate students and ask, “How is it going?” or “Has sexual harassment ever happened with your advisor?”, or even “Why would you work with Slater given the history we hear in the rumor mill?” because the facts of today wouldn’t be as exciting to share as imagined stories of discrimination and harassment of the past. Worse, blocking proven pathways to success in this way only serves to handicap the growth of our community unnecessarily. In other words, this gossip, whether or not it is about me specifically, unnecessarily blocks the improvement of astronomy teaching by making it nearly impossible for the mutual respect needed for learning and sharing of ideas to happen.

I know that sharing my story won’t change anyone’s mind that’s already set: A jury of public opinion rarely seeks truth. On one hand, one would reasonably expect that this many years later, I’m a surely different and more mature person than I was as a younger, more indulgent man; I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my students, colleagues, family, and church.  Becoming a Christian and having the good fortune of recently marrying a solidly-grounded, Christian woman has helped me tremendously to have more compassion and deeper empathy, whereas before I mistakenly had too little.

On the other hand, I too often clearly see a severe lack of real substance in discussing today’s astronomy’s social-cultural issues.  There are those astronomers who ask, “is she female enough to speak on women’s issues” or “is she too privileged to make judgments about black issues” or “as a previous sexual harassment violator, should he be allowed to participate ever again,” instead of intellectually considering the value of what is being proposed.  Just the same as people who mistakenly make judgments of people based on their skin tone or a guess at their genitalia, too many astronomers use a what-does-the-gossip-say filter before they think.  This is wrong and impedes our community’s progress.

I am inclined to lay much of the blame of this on the Boards and Councils who created Committees for purposes of advice, but then they never provided these individuals with seriously needed oversight.  These overzealous and unsupervised committee members then can do unthinkable things, such as try to publicly shame their targets or create coordinated attacks on individuals who have differing points of view.  The problem now is that these committee members have exposed the members of supervising Boards and Councils to legal action.  One might try to argue that these individuals are working independently of their convening association, but it is a pretty easy legal argument to show that because they were initially organized under the banner of an association’s committee, that the association is itself libel.  If these sub groups working within professional societies continue to try to serve as investigators, judge, jury, and sentencers, I suspect that we’ll quickly see each of the professional society Board and Council members quickly scrambling for their own lawyers.

I do hope that sharing my story will encourage astronomers to pause—even if just for a moment—before passing on unconfirmed gossip about other astronomers they’ve never actually met, especially for things they weren’t involved with themselves. These are real people, with careers, spouses, children, and grandchildren you are crushing. My kids read what you post on the Internet too, where nothing is really private. The astronomy community, and the broader college STEM teaching community, is cracking under the weight of the ongoing, destructive rumor mill, and I am at a loss of how to stop it other than calling it out for what it is—gossip.  This gossip is stopping everything, especially our ability to be good teachers and to create communities where others want to belong.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Is the best astronomy education research ‘grey’?

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, tslater@caperteam.com

It’s a reasonable question to pose, “how do I quickly learn about the best that astronomy education research has to offer?” Exhaustive reviews of astronomy education research (Adams & Slater, 2000; Bailey & Slater, 2003, 2005; Slater, 2008), clearly position astronomy education research, AER, as a its own scholarly discipline existing within a rich field of robust student misconceptions and varied instructional strategies designed to intellectually engage students. Indeed, the publication of National Research Council publication, Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering (NRC, 2012) highlights astronomy as one of the principle disciplines of education research, elevating it to the same level as physics education research, geoscience education research, chemistry education research, engineering education research, and biology education research (listed in no particular order). Yet, if it is so important, where is all the astronomy education research?

Unfortunately, because AER is still a fledgling field in comparison to its older brother of physics education research, PER, much of the AER created scholarly knowledge is just beginning to show up in refereed journals. Beyond the some 150 studies summarized in reviews from refereed journals (reviews cited above), most of astronomy education research seems just incredibly difficult to find. Some efforts like SABER (http://astronomy.uwp.edu/saber/) have worked to gather disparate astronomy education research articles in journals beyond the Journal of Astronomy & Earth Sciences Education (http://JAESE.org) or the deceased Astronomy Education Review (http://aer.aas.org), but it just seems like more should be out there, doesn’t it?

Most of astronomy education research that currently exists is hiding in deep in what is known colloquially as the “grey literature.” Grey literature is the scholarly work that has been done and presented at conferences or exhaustively written up in dissertations, but never formally published in refereed journals. For example, at every American Astronomical Society and American Association of Physics Teachers meetings, there are special sessions, both oral and poster, overflowing with astronomy education research scholarship reports. Bailey (2010) reports that in a recent search of the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS), a query of “education” in abstracts for oral or poster presentations at American Astronomical Society (AAS) meetings yielded more than 1300 abstracts since 1992; nearly 600 of those were from the year 2006 or later. And there are similarly impressive numbers of astronomy education abstracts, both invited and contributed from meetings of the American Association of Physics Teachers sub-section now called space science and astronomy. This is the domain of the grey literature.

The best example of the AER grey literature is probably the most well-known study of understanding in astronomy ever done. It was publicized by Philip Sadler and is presented in the video A Private Universe (Schneps 1989). The video begins with clips of interviews with several alumni, faculty, and graduating seniors from Harvard University. Of the 23 individuals interviewed, 21 could not give a scientifically acceptable explanation for the cause of the seasons or the phases of the Moon. Although the misconceptions so cleverly illustrated by A Private Universe were garnered through methods that probably do not conform to the rules of reliability and validity that define today’s DBER, the video’s widespread influence cannot be understated. The Private Universe video served as wake-up call for the astronomy education community, much like Hestenes and colleagues (1992) Force Concept Inventory served as a rallying point for PER. For many, Private Universe marks a major milestone in the evolution of AER. Yet, nowhere does Private Universe show up as a refereed journal article.



As another example, consider the Test Of Astronomy STandards, the TOAST. Conceived of by Stephanie Slater and colleagues, this pretest-posttest, multiple-choice survey of astronomy knowledge is widely used across the international astronomy education research community. Yet, its only formal citation prior to a recent formal publication (now available online for free at S. Slater, 2014) is from an appendix of the book, “Discipline-Based Science Education Research: A Scientist’s Guide” published by Pono Publishing. Books are only sometimes considered by university tenure and promotion review committees as refereed scholarship, yet often hold a treasure trove of wonderful work. It is worth remembering that sometimes AER scholars have so many great projects going on that they just don’t get around to formally publishing everything that is meritous. In fact, this isn’t true of just AER, but is a rarely whispered truth to all of scientific scholarship that we rarely tell students about.

If you really want to see the magic of the grey literature, consider dissertations. Dissertations are a secret place where exhaustive reviews are found. It is often in the second chapter of astronomy education research dissertations where work is widely reviewed in the dreaded literature review chapter. Sometimes found as PDF’s at ProQuest.com, many astronomy education research dissertations review tens, if not hundreds of studies, conference presentations, poster contributions, and other dissertations. Together, this represents a tremendous amount of work reviewing, synthesizing, and recasting previous work that is well worth the time to hunt down, especially if you are trying to get into AER.
So, if you are trying to find the very best and most influential astronomy education research work and aren’t having much luck, you need to know that you are not alone. Most Ph.D. dissertations are never published, and an even smaller percentage of conference presentations end up as refereed journal articles. Just because something never makes it into a formal refereed journal, doesn’t mean that it is bad work; in fact, there are plenty of published refereed journal articles that represent bad scholarship. Rather, it just means that the scholarship cycle was never completed. In reviewing astronomy research, you need to be a critical consumer of the research you are considering and realize that the formal citation rate of the journal you are looking at only is one aspect you should use to judge its relative importance.


REFERENCES CITED:

Adams, J. P., & Slater, T. F. (2000). Astronomy in the National Science Education Standards. Journal of Geoscience Education, 48(1), 39-45.

Bailey, J.M. (2010). Astronomy Education Research: Developmental History of the Field and Summary of the Literature. Paper commissioned by the National Research Council, http://www7.national-academies.org/bose/DBER_Janelle_Bailey.pdf

Bailey, J. M., & Slater, T. F. (2003). A review of astronomy education research. Astronomy Education Review, 2(2), 20-45. doi: 10.3847/AER2003015.

Bailey, J. M., & Slater, T. F. (2005). Resource letter AER-1: Astronomy education research. American Journal of Physics, 73(8), 677-685

Hestenes, D., Wells, M. and Swackhamer, G. (1992). Force concept inventory. The Physics Teacher, 30: 141-158.

National Research Council (2012). Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, 2012, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13362

Test Of Astronomy STandards, TOAST. In “Discipline-Based Science Education Research: A Scientist’s Guide, 2nd ed” by Slater, Slater, Heyer, & Bailey, published by Pono Publishing, http://tinyurl.com/pcmkly4

Slater, S.J. (2014).  Development and validation of the Test Of Astronomy STandards– TOAST. Journal of Astronomy & Earth Sciences Education, 1(1), 1-22.

Slater, T. F. (2008). The first big wave of astronomy education research dissertations and some directions for future research efforts. Astronomy Education Review, 7(1), 1-12. doi: 10.3847/AER2008001,

Schneps, M. P. 1989, A Private Universe [Video], Found at http://www.learner.org/resources/series28.html

WikiPedia entry for Grey Literature, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gray_literature

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How to Hack a Conference

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research

It’s about time to begin to think about professional conference travel. This is the time of year where you ask yourself, ‘What kind of things do I have to share next years conferences?’ and ‘Where do I want to go?’ and “What does one do at a conference?’

The reality is that HOW DO YOU DO A CONFERENCE really well is not written down anywhere. It’s really folk knowledge. Its knowledge experts share it in dark corners with mirrors, standing in the fog out on some deck somewhere close to the ocean on the pier secretly sharing how to Thomas Friedman Lecturinghack a conference.

So with that, what goes on at conferences? One of the main things that you see at conferences are keynote talks, or sometimes they are called plenary talks, sometimes they are called prize award wining talks and these are talks by real leaders in the field, or people you really want to hear from. Maybe they are very famous book authors, or maybe they are very famous scientists the organization has either given them a lot of money to come give a talk, or they have given them awards. Conferences sometimes attract big name speakers by saying, “in order for you to come get this $1000 award or this $5000 life achievement award or this $10,000 mentoring award, you actually have to come to the conference and give a talk.” And these are always very well attended. Usually there is nothing else going on at the conference at the same time, so everybody from the conference is usually there. It’s in a giant ballroom that can have 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000 people in them. That’s a pretty important part of many conferences.

Now that’s not the only thing going oGiving a not so well attended contributed talkn at a conference. In a big conference you may only have 4 of these sorts of highlighted, but most of the time, time at the conference is given to what are called contributive talks. These are much, much shorter talks and these talks are not given to rooms of thousands of people. These are talks given to rooms that may have 1000 chairs but have far fewer people in them.

Here is a picture of a contributed talk at the American Geophysical Union. This is where you can speak most often: in general you are standing at a podium a long way away from the audience using a remote control to run a screen that you can’t actually see, to a group of people who are only really there because they also are giving talks in that session and they were too embarrassed to walk in late and they didn’t want to walk out of yours. So there could be contributing talks, or papers they are called, are kind of the mainstay of the conference. And in general these things are not very well attended.  How many people are in attendance is in no way a reflection of how good the talk is or how important it is, which is as odd as it sounds.

Now, in addition to talks, you will often find poster sessions going on. These are really science fairs for adults. And whether your conference you are going to has more papers being presented or more posters really depends on the nature of the conference.

At some conferences, the poster session is where it’s at. Everything goes on at the poster session. Everybody meets at the poster session. There can be beer served at the poster session. There can be free food are the poster session. On the other hand, at some conferences there’s almost no poster session whatsoever and everything is done in the form of contributive talks and contributive papers.

Consider AGU, American Geophysical Union. The AGU has about 20,000 people show up at its conference. It is a very large conference. There are about 12,000 posters being presented at this conference, in a giant warehouse, all at the same time. Posters generally go up all day long. In general, some conferences will assign times you need to stand by your poster. The conference organizers will say, “be at your poster from 10 in the morning until 11:30.” Or, “be at your poster from 4:30 to 6:30 pm.”

Highly Social Poster Session at AGU Or sometimes they won’t assign them times at all. But what people will do is they will self-assign times. So right in the middle of that screen there is a sign that says poster #833 and beneath that is a piece of paper. And on that piece of paper it will say, “I will be at the poster from blank to blank.” and people write down what times they are going to be there.

For conferences like the AGU, or the American Astronomical Society, these poster session is where much of the the socializing happens. People just go and hang out in the poster sessions. They may not be looking at your poster but that is the place where people get together and chat. So poster sessions are really, really good stuff. It’s where a lot of socializing happens.

Something else you may notice about the poster session are there are these brown envelopes hanging on the wall. These brown envelopes hanging on the wall are business envelopes where people have made photocopies of their poster, on 8 ½ by 11, and have them there for people to take. Sometimes people also pin business cards around the bottom for you to take. Or you can have post it notes sitting there and tell people to write notes about the poster and stick them on the poster right there. That way it was kind of a way for them to graffiti a poster, if you will.

At the poster sessions, that poster sessions are often places where you can run into somebody famous. Somebody who is walking around maybe it is someone who has written a paper that you really like. Maybe it’s somebody who’s giving a talk that you are really interested in. Maybe it’s somebody you think would be good on a committee of yours. And these are places you can often find them wandering around and not talking to anybody.

You should feel completely free to walk up to those and talk to them. You can usually tell in the first thirty seconds if they are conversationalists or not. What I wouldn’t recommend doing, though, is going up and interrupting a conversation. It is usually best to try to catch them in between conversations. Which can be a bit of a trick to doing that. If are looking to meet famous people who are just wandering around that you really want to meet, and you really do want to meet these people, poster sessions are the way to do that.

Presenting a poster is a low stress way of presenting the kinds of things you are working on. Because, if you get nervous and you feel like going somewhere else, you can always just leave, but your poster is still there. And you get to talk to people on your own speed. Most people come up and they are looking at your poster and they’ll look at it for a little while and then they’ll say, “hey could you tell me about this?” it gives you a chance to interact with people at the level and depth that you want to practice talking to people

So those are the three really big things that happen at conferences, the plenary invited talks that everybody goes to, the contributive papers that the speakers go to, and they can be anywhere from six minutes, which is very, very short to thirty minutes, which is relatively long, and then there are poster sessions that sometimes last all day. And all three of these things are very different ways of sharing science at a conference.

Conference Panel SessionsBeyond the big three, another thing that happens at conferences are panel discussions. And you probably saw this in your reading. Panel discussions are where you get a series of experts together to present their views and argue with each other. Specifically, they talk to one another and let the rest of the audience listen in about what’s going on.

Now, for my nickels, panel discussions in and of themselves are just ‘ok’ things to listen to. What’s really important is if you are able to become the organizer of one of those panel discussions. What happens if you are the moderator is you get to interact with each of these speakers and you get to get together with them early, maybe meet an hour and a half before the session and have coffee with them.

Even better, if everyone is able to be there the night before, what you do is you have a panel dinner where everybody gets together at a restaurant. You get to pick the restaurant. Everybody pays their own way and you get to spend an hour and a half eating drinking and having conversations with really important people in the field who are experts at the kind of things you would want to pay attention to. So panel discussions are really, really neat things to put together because it allows you to get to know people you wouldn’t otherwise get to know.

Meetings are really for networking. They’re really, really for meeting people. That’s why they are called meetings. So I encourage you to take advantage of as many of these avenues things as you possibly can.

Slide08In addition, many conferences also offer half-day workshops, or full day, or once in a while even two-day workshops. At CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, we tend to offer a lot of workshops because this is a good place to get to spend a lot of time sharing research ideas you have, sharing the instructional strategies you’ve been working, and on getting to know people pretty well. Often these workshops are run by book publishers, by computer programming software people, even by hardware telescope people who often are going to be running workshops—and often you get free stuff. So that’s usually a good reason to go. Usually you get free coffee.

Sometimes you can get free breakfast and free lunch. So workshops are often a good thing. They usually do charge a little extra to go to these workshops usually to cover the cost of coffee and registration. And it’s going to cost an extra night or two of hotel rooms, but again I happen to think all day conferences is a really good way to get in-depth study of a particular kind of thing.

Long registration lines are common at too many conferencesNow in addition to the plenary talks, and the contributive talks, and the poster sessions, and the pre-conference workshops, one of the things you are going to find are really, really annoying very long registration lines. Why is it a bunch of scientists who pride themselves on speed and efficiency can’t figure out how to do fast registration? I just don’t know.

Some places you are able to get your registration information before you get there or download it online and can avoid these long lines. If there is anyway at all you can avoid these long lines you need to figure out a way to do it. Every conference is a little bit different in how you pull that off. Sometimes of you go really early or really late or sometimes in the middle of the day or sometimes even if you wait half a day before going and registering all those things can help.

Conference Booklet or App? You decideBut when you get to the front of this very long line they give you a whole bunch of promotional material that you really aren’t interested in and you really don’t need. Usually they give you a really big heavy meeting booklet.

Recently, some conferences have started figuring out how to do apps. iPad apps, iPhone apps, Android apps and these are really, really cool things, because you get all your information, you can go through it and figure out exactly what you would like to do and schedule things out so you know where you are going when.

So as soon as you get your big book, or get your app, the first thing you want to do is spend some time going through it. And you want to pick, throughout the day, two things that you would like to do. You always want to have a first choice and a second choice. The reason you want to have a first choice and a second choice is sometimes you go to the room of your first choice and it will be completely full and you just can’t get in, so you want your second choice.

Sometimes what you’ll want to do is you’ll want to go into your first choice and it really, really is terrible. That speaker is just awful and so then you will want to be able to go to your second choice. But sometimes you won’t get to your first choice or get to your second choice because you are busy meeting with somebody out in the hallway that you have always been wanting to meet or you are going to spend all meeting figuring out how to meet. So you are just going to miss half the stuff you want to do. That’s just the way it is.

Some things are video taped, or audio taped, or digitally recorded and put onto websites. Most are not. But again, you want to be sure you do a lot of preplanning, because if you are sitting there at 8 o’clock trying to figure out what you want to do at eight thirty you are going to be in a real mess. So take some time, even if it’s just a half hour away, to get that stuff figured out.

What’s most important when you register is getting your name badge. The name badge serves a bunch of really important functions. One function it serves is it has your name on it. And if you wear it and you are walking around then people can talk to you and call you by name and even remember your name.

Your name badge probably also has a barcode on it. And that barcode, whether it is a barcode or QR code, is very useful because when you go to the exhibit hall, which we’ll talk about here in just a minute, vendors can zap your barcode and they have you on record and they can send you free stuff and add you on their mailing list, which of course you can delete. But often you get free stuff.

Slide11So your name and your location is on your name badge. And then underneath your name tag, at some conferences, they have a bunch of crazy stickers on there. These stickers are very, very important. Because these stickers, sometimes you get them at the registration desk, sometimes you get them as you are wandering around the conference, these are great conversation starters. If you see someone you would like to talk to, and you have no idea how to start a conversation ask them about one of their badges, stickers, even if you know what it means, ask them about it, because people seem to wear things pretty proudly.

Reminds me of the old Steve Martin bit. He was doing movie called LA Story about living in Los Angeles and there is a particular scene where he is sitting at a dinner party next to this women and the person next to her goes, “hey did you know that Susan is taking courses in conversation?” Steve Martin goes, “Really? That’s fantastic!” and the lady who is taking the courses says, “Yes.” So remember you are dealing with scientists. And so scientists often aren’t very good at conversations so these things will help you help them to have a conversation.  The bottom line here is that I recommend you take your name badge very, very seriously.

In addition, your name badge will get you into receptions. There are a gazillion receptions that go on at these conferences and they are characterized by two things. Number one, they are characterized by expensive drinks, I mean like $8.00, $10.00, $12.00 for a beer, and often free food. Let me put the emphasis on free food. Now notice that there are a gazillion people there. They eat that free food really fast. So if the reception starts at 6:00 don’t show up fashionably late at 6:20. Show up there at 5:55 get your free food and then head over to the bar to get yourself an expensive drink, because there is another reception starting at 7:30 and you want to make sure you are ready for that reception at 7:25. Again the free food things don’t last for very long, but you can reception hop, to reception hop, to reception hop.

You don’t want to have your backpack with you; you don’t want to have your coat with you, or your briefcase. You may not even want to have your purse with you; because things are tight they are crowded. You don’t want to carry anything. They are typically noisy but everybody is there and it is a great place to meet people.

Slide12And if you tell people you are a graduate student sometimes people will buy you drinks. I have been telling people I am a graduate student for years just to get free drinks. No not the bartenders. The bartenders won’t give you free drinks, but often whomever you are talking to will because they will take pity on a poor graduate student.

Now one of the things I should point out here is the way you purchase drinks here is very strange in some cities. In general, you do not give the bartender money. In general, there is somebody standing next to the bartender that you give money to and that person then gives you a ticket and you go stand in the bar line and buy drinks from them. Why this is true I just don’t know.

But you want to be alert to when these receptions are and when they are going to be, because they often aren’t advertised. So put on your eavesdropping ears when you hear people say, “Hey I can’t meet you because I have to go to such and such reception.” That is defiantly where you want to be, at the reception. So don’t miss the reception. It’s most often code for ‘free food.’

Let’s talk about something that is perhaps surprising to you–exhibit halls. In addition to plenary talks, invited talks, poster sessions, panel discussions, and standing in long lines, and going to receptions, there are exhibit halls. The exhibit halls, I’ve got to tell you, are where I spend most of my time. These are where you get to meet famous people, you get to talk to book authors. Many of these booths have free stuff. Maybe its free books, maybe its free pencils, maybe its free mouse pads, maybe who knows what kinds of things are there.

Exhibit hallThese exhibit halls at some conferences that are very small; it will take you five minutes to walk through. Or some places, like NSTA, can be incredibly large and they will take you literally eight hours to get through. Some conferences have not only has commercial vendors, but also have a lot of scientific equipment vendors. And so it is often really fun to go through and see the telescopes, see the compasses, and see the geodesic domes, all kinds of crazy things that you have. It’s a really, really good place to spend quite a bit of time.

One of the reasons it’s a good place to spend quite a bit of time is often they have free food, free coffee, and at places like AGU they will often have free beer. And I don’t mean cheap beer I mean really good beer.

And you can get free books sometimes too. All you need to do is go to a publisher who publishes books for courses you teach (or someday might teach). You can say, “Hey I am in the market for a new book. I’m teaching this new class next fall. I’ve never taught this geology class or this astronomy class, I’ve never taught this chemistry class and I’m trying to decide what book to use.” Often you let them write your name down and your email address they will give you free copies of books.

Stephanie J Slater doing an author signing in a vendor boothNow for those of you who have been in the K-12 world, those conferences do not often give away free books to teachers like they will in a college world. In higher education world, in college university science world free books flow like water. So you can often get free books there. The authors are often standing there during beer time. So you can go by talk with them, you can have them sign your books for you. Which is really kind of a fun thing to do. Sometimes, they will even sign your books for you, which is very cool.

Really, don’t miss the exhibit halls, just find out from people what time the free beer is served. You don’t want to be there at one o’clock and get yourself all worn out if the free beer isn’t there until five o’clock. Some serve ice cream during the day!

Finally on the last day of the conference the last hour of the conference vendors are not allowed to pack up anything early, but they start looking at all the books, all the materials that they have there and they are saying, “you know what? I really don’t want to ship all this stuff home.” And many vendors will start giving you stuff. They will give you aquariums. They will give you posters. They will give you books. They will give you butterflies. They will give you hermit crabs. They will often give a lot of stuff away during the last hour. So if you have something’s that you want, that you would like to have but you don’t want to pay for, go to the exhibit hall on the last afternoon and politely poke around.

My heart in San FranciscoAnd you know to be completely honest part of going to conferences also has to do with where you are going. The AGU conference where many of these pictures were taken was in San Francisco. It happens in December. It happens right before Christmas, so everything is completely decorated for Christmas. This is Union Square in San Francisco. You can see pictures, excuse me, you can see all the windows of Macy’s all which have giant wreaths in them. They also have puppies in the windows from the humane society. San Francisco is also famous for the number of homeless people it has and the creative ways that they have to chat with you and make you feel uncomfortable.

If you go year after year, you get to hang out with friends that you’ve known a long time. If your family gets to go with you, you get to go to really fantastic beautiful places and do science at the same time. So you cant ignore this idea of traveling. I think that’s a pretty important thing to remember that traveling does happen. And you should take in some of the sights.

You don’t want to skip the meetings to do those things, but what I would recommend is if you want to go explore a city you haven’t been before to go early to do your exploration. Because by the end of the conference you are so tired you are not going to want to the zoo or go see anything.

You really should try to find a way to get to one professional conference a year, even if it has to come out of your own pocket. Because at these professional conferences that’s where people are giving talks about papers that won’t be published for eighteen more months. It’s where a chance to meet people for research collaborations, for committee assignments, for people to write you external letters for review.

How to pay for a conferenceBut, cost is a real issue. Some conferences allow you to volunteer to cut down on registration costs. Others cut the cost if you sign up early. Registration at some of these meetings can be extremely expensive. If you are a member of that society often you get a big discount break, but if your university is paying for your trip they will not pay for your membership. So some people will not join an organization, go ahead and pay for the higher cost registration because their university doesn’t reimburse them for the cost of a membership.

Another strategy is to share a hotel room. For me, the hotel room is the most expensive part of these conferences, particularly if you stay in the conference hotel. Sometimes right next door to the conference hotel there is a Best Western or a Hampton Inn, which can be half the price. Often the lower price hotels have free breakfast. The lower price hotels often have free Internet. Because people who go to the five star hotels have budgets to pay for their Internet, pay for their parking and to pay for their breakfast. Often you get a better deal both food wise and price wise if you can find a cheaper hotel next door, as long as you feel safe.

What to do at a conferenceWe have talked about invited talks, contributive talks, poster sessions, exhibit halls, panel discussions, registration lines, name badges, program booklets, program apps, and how to find free beer, and how talk to people. That’s a lot to manage; and it’s totally worth it!

Comments Off on How to Hack a Conference

Filed under Uncategorized

Does JAESE Count for Tenure & Promotion if it is an Open-Access Journal?  

Unquestionably, the currency of academic scholarship is refereed publications. Although many scholars enjoy juxtaposing and debating a “quantity of pages” versus “quality of impact on the field” ad infinitum, the question most researcher want to know is simply, “how can I have my best work meaningfully refereed and made accessible to the academic community?” What was one a rather straightforward question just a decade ago has become increasingly complex as the world of academic publishing is rapidly evolving.

It was in response to the question of “how best to publish” that motivated us to create the new Journal of Astronomy & Earth Sciences Education – JAESE. We’ve spent quite a bit of time creating this publishing vehicle for the science education research community, and it is something that we’re quite proud of. Unfortunately, it has been off-handedly suggested that JAESE might be a predatory journal or perhaps a place too new for faculty seeking promotion and tenure. I, JAESE’s Editor-in-Chief, along with JAESE’s guiding Editorial Advisory Board can assure you that JAESE is not a predatory journal.  Moreover, a quick glance at our list of well-known editorial board members or a read of the high quality of papers JAESE has already published should be enough to put any such fears to rest.

If you haven’t heard of predatory journals before, predatory journals are those publishing entities that charge authors exorbitant fees to publish their research articles, regardless of the scholarly quality and without any meaningful peer-review. Predatory journals have shown up in the news quite a bit lately because of an instance where an India-based journal publisher quickly accepted and published a submitted but nonsensical, computer-generated article and invoiced the imaginary author several thousand dollars with a single-word editorial review of, “excellent.” JAESE isn’t one of these publication-mills.

JAESE is an open-access journal. This means that its peer-reviewed articles are freely available to readers and libraries without a subscription. Whereas traditional publishers cover their costs by surprisingly large subscription fees to libraries, open-access journals charge authors or their institutions a page-charge fee to cover their costs, including copyediting, layout, indexing, permanent storage, stable access, and curation. In other words, one can’t simply put up a website and call it a journal, as permanent storage, indexing, and stable URLs are important and not as easy as it might seem.

Simply charging authors or their institutions a fee is not in and of itself any evidence of predation, as many scientific journals have such per-page fees, including Journal of Geoscience Education (JGE charges $100/page, but fees are optional for those without institutional support) and the Astrophysical Journal ($275/page fees). Moreover, journals such as Journal of Research in Science Teaching are seemingly free to publish in, but charge a $3,000 fee if authors wish to make their articles available open-access to those without a subscription. GSA’s Geology is $2500 per article fee. Because JAESE isn’t connected to a big publishing company, JAESE charges a nominal open-access fee, averaging about $500 per article—and authors’ retain their own copyright. In other words, the cost is about the same as JGE, but JAESE readers do not require a subscription, making the overall cost lower. The JAESE Editorial Board judged this to be a much better model than other available options.   If you’re really interested in how much it actually costs to publish an article, I recommend starting by reading the NATURE article on the subject at http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676

JAESE wasn’t created overnight. Instead, the current form of JAESE is a result of two years of collaborative planning, including the competitive selection of an experienced, US-based academic publisher. Part of that planning includes the creation and engagement of both an Editorial Advisory Board and a Board of Reviewers who are highly respected and well-known scholars (viz., http://JAESE.org), including former journal editors, who oversee the JAESE Editor, who is also himself an experienced senior scholar. Part of the motivation to create JAESE is based upon (i) the void created with the cessation of the Astronomy Education Review, (ii) the large number of manuscripts received by Journal of Geoscience Education, and the non-library subscription nature of the Journal of Research in Astronomy Education & Outreach. Its not like there are an overabundance of places for discipline-based education researchers to publish, and most scholars seem to welcome new avenues that use new business models.

Recent discussion about predatory journals has been further fueled by an exuberant, list-making librarian at the University of Colorado-Denver who has been trying to keep track of the ever-growing, fly-by-night journal publishers, mostly in India and surrounding countries. These groups have created fictitious journals such as the London Journal of Indian Medicine and the Spanish Journal of African Culture. Because it is nearly impossible to fully investigate all of these quickly waxing and waning publishers, including our own, Jeffrey Beall’s list (which has been widely cited elsewhere, although not often critically so) is specifically titled the POTENTIAL, POSSIBLE, OR PROBABLE list of open-access publishers.   Unfortunately, JAESE was placed on this warning list of potentially, possible, or probable predatory journals simply because it is funded by open-access publication fees instead of subscriptions: JAESE was placed on this list even before its first issue was released and without any regard to the credentials of the Board or to the quality of the articles included. Suspiciously, all our attempts to contact Mr. Beall so far to correct this or appeal this have been dismissed. In other words, once a journal gets on his list, it seems to be impossible to get off of it. Personally, I judge this to be dubious and Beall’s once deeply appreciated work is now being justifiably criticized by a wide range of scholars.

To get down into the weeds of it, Beall’s criteria for being on the list of potentially predatory journals includes: if the publisher is the editor (for JAESE, the publisher is Ron Clute and the editor is Tim Slater – one is tall with lots of hair and the other, well, is not); if there is no substantive or knowledgably editorial/review board (for JAESE, there is a 20-member editorial review board of well-known and highly respected scholars); and if there is little geographic or gender diversity of the editorial board (for JAESE, there is an international representation with a balance of gender). In addition, Beall suggests that potentially, possible, or probable predatory publishers: have weak controls for plagiarism (in addition to having knowledgeable reviewers, JAESE uses software to guard against this); lack stable and permanent article identifiers such as paid DOIs (JAESE uses an internal system with permanent URLs and pays to be deposited in a permanent repository system); are not members of large publishing collaboratives (JAESE’s publisher Clute Institute is an endorsing publisher for the UKSG.org Transfer Code of Practice); and do not have any long-standing history (JAESE’s publisher is based in Denver and has been publishing journals for several decades, with more than 7,500 refereed articles permanently curated in total).

One specific criticism of JAESE is that we currently do not use DOI numbers to specify permanent URLs for archived articles. The DOI system was created in the 1990s to solve the problem of unstable URLs when using Netscape and Mosaic to find online resources. Many publishers think that the DOI system has outlived the problem it was trying to solve, especially as membership in the DOI system is expensive for small publishers and, it seems to me, largely unnecessary these days. The JAESE Editorial Board is currently reconsidering DOIs, but members are understandably reluctant to pass more costs on to authors, if it is unnecessary.

In the end, the quality of any journal is mostly independent of its business model. Instead, I believe that the quality of any scientific journal should be judged on its usefulness to scholarly authors and accessibility to scholarly readers. Over the decades, there have been many efforts to quantify a journal’s value, like impact factors and citation indexes. I’m not going to bore you with all the ways to manipulate those numbers, but if I haven’t overstayed my welcome yet, I’m happy to tell you some of my opinions.

People often ask me about acceptance rates. I will tell you that JAESE anticipates having about a 30% acceptance rate—it might be higher or lower over the long term—but I’ll also confess that acceptance rates as a valid measure of journal quality is completely meaningless. On one hand, the Astrophysical Journal, the inarguable top-tier astronomy journal has a 91% acceptance rate. On the other hand, the Journal of Teacher Education, the best candidate for the top-tier education journal, has a 6% acceptance rate. That’s a magnificent difference between acceptance rates. Which is the higher quality journal? I don’t know in these two cases, but I can tell you that the value for acceptance rate doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it.

People sometimes ask me about JAESE’s affiliation with a professional society. To many people’s surprise, most professional societies publish journals specifically as a revenue raising activity in order to fund its office and programs. Both the American Geophysical Union and the American Astronomical Society earn millions of dollars each year through their publications. Across library sciences, a professional society affiliation is rarely considered evidence of quality. JAESE is not affiliated with a professional society, because we want to keep costs as low as possible.

Finally, I believe that a solid peer-review system is the best guarantee for having valuable articles in one’s journal. Whereas some journals use only a single, peer-reviewer, JAESE uses a multiple-peer review system. Each submitted manuscript has the authors’ names and their affiliations removed before review, as this has been shown in a variety of fields to influence acceptance. Manuscripts are reviewed by two Review Board members, as well as by the Editor. In cases where there is specialized knowledge being advanced, either scientific or educational, more reviewers are used. The philosophical inclination of our review system is formative, rather than punitive, in an attempt to help authors get their work out when appropriately mature. It is our hope that this review system will enhance the usefulness of the articles and provide valuable feedback to authors.

This “blog post” has gone on for much longer than I anticipated, but I felt compelled to explain to our community some of our thinking. It is my deepest hope that JAESE can contribute to the advancement of science education research and I’m always open to hearing your suggestions on how to improve it.

Timothy F. Slater, Ph.D., University of Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair of Science Education, and Senior Scientist at the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research (caperteam.com)

www.JAESE.org

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

New “Journal of Astronomy & Earth Sciences Education” Invites Manuscripts

The “Journal of Astronomy & Earth Sciences Education” invites education research scholars and public outreach professionals to submit manuscripts across the broadly defined Earth and space science disciplines. Based in the United States and founded by an internationally recognized editorial advisory board, JAESE publishes refereed articles for an international audience in discipline-based education research on teaching and learning across a broad range of disciplines including: astronomy, climate science, geology, geography, energy resource science, environmental sciences, meteorology, oceanography, planetary sciences, and space sciences. In addition to empirical, quantitative and qualitative science education research articles, JAESE publishes essays on innovative teaching strategies and systematically evaluated public outreach programs, using a blind, multiple-peer-review system. JAESE’s first issue is available at www. JAESE.org, and detailed author submission guidelines are available online.

JAESE articles are indexed through NASA SAO/ADS, GoogleScholar, ERIC, EBSCO, and ProQuest, among other reputable scholarly citation systems. All articles are open-access, meaning articles are permanently free to readers and libraries without a subscription. The journal keeps costs low by using an established business model where authors or their institutions pay a nominal a open-access curation and publication fee instead of a subscription.

Additional information about the journal may be directed to Dr. Tim Slater, Editor, at JAESE@uwyo.edu or found online at http://www.JAESE.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Should I Teach ASTRO101 With Metric Units or US-Standard Imperial Units?

Tim Slater, Senior Scientist, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com; http://www.caperteam.com

A long-standing debate in the teaching of astronomy at the college level—and science in general—is whether to teach using metric SI units or customary US-standard units.  At first glance the argument seems to be based on two juxtaposed positions.  On one hand, US college students are largely unaware of the metric system and therefore need to be provided values for distance in more familiar units.  On the other hand, real science is actually done in metric units and students studying in a science class should use the language conventions of science.  It is this second position—authentic science uses metric units—that most college science faculty adopt.  A cursory survey of most astronomy textbooks reveals that most distance values are given in metric units (with US-standard units often provided parenthetically) in the narrative sections, with data tables using metric units most frequently. Upon further reflection (or perhaps being urged to think more deeply from a learning and cognitive science perspective), one wonders if there is a more nuanced situation here and a more thoughtful approach is warranted?  Cognitive science provides at least two boundary conditions to be considered in a more nuanced version of this debate: (i) issues related to novice-vs-expert learning and (ii) issues of cognitive overload.

To take a step back, we should acknowledge that the question of which system of units to teach under has been a raging debate for decades (1, 2, 3) . The United States’ historical efforts to go-metric have been a complete failure and are relatively well-known.  I don’t have space here—in any unit system—to delve deeply into our metrification attempts, such as unfruitful efforts to change all US highway road signs to metric, which I believe only still exist south of Tucson). For the passionately interested reader, Phelps (4) has written about much of that history.

In recent years, however, education researchers have taken up the task of studying how learners conceptualize size and scale with the explicit goal of helping teachers teach better and helping students learn more.  Much of this education research work was funded under the banner of rapidly advancing nanotechnology because educators needed to figure out how to help students learn about this new technology.  Their work extends to astronomy educators because what NC State’s Gail Jones and her collaborators learned was that many students, nor K-12 teachers, fail to accurately conceptualize many distance values at all, big or small. (5-7) This is alarming because much of teaching and learning in astronomy is about “how big and how far.” (8)

Some professors have found it fruitful to use videos to help teach relative scales, using videos like Powers of Ten. (9- 11)  Perhaps narcissistically, Jones and Tretter’s ongoing research suggests that this video works so effectively because the video starts with what people are most familiar with – the size of a human body.

Most people understand sizes and scales based on benchmark landmarks and mental reference points from their experiences. K-12 students tend to think of the world in terms of objects that are: small, person-sized, room-sized, field-sized and big.  High school and college students also sometimes include shopping mall-sized and college campus-sized objects in their listings.  Further, people’s out of school experiences involving measurement of movement have the greatest impacts on their sense of size and scale—walking, biking, car travel—as opposed to school experiences where they have rote memorized numbers from tables. Consistently, it is to these common experience anchors that people use various measurement scales.

For us teaching astronomy, this is where the cognitive science issue of novice-vs-expert rears its ugly head (13).  Compared to a novice, an expert uses their experiences to automatically and often unawareingly change between scales.  For example, when measuring the distance between Earth and Neptune, would one describe it in meters, astronomical units, or light-travel-time?  The answer is, of course, it depends on why an astronomer would want to know such a distance.  For an expert, using meters, AU, and ly is readily interchangeable whereas for a novice, these are three totally separate determinations.  When I ask my students how far it is from where they are sitting to the front entrance of the building, or to the city with the state capital, they can usually give me a reasonably close answer using units of their OWN choosing, often it is time in minutes or hours, or in distances like American football field-yards or miles.  If I specify the units their answers must be in, such as feet or kilometers, my college students generally have no idea.  Experts are fundamentally different than students.  We readily move between parsecs and light-years, whereas our novice students cannot—no matter how much we wish they could.  As it turns out, if students could easily move between measurement systems, they wouldn’t be novices, they’d be experts and we teachers might be out of a job.  In other words, we can’t simply tell students that a meter is about a yard, and two miles is about 3 kilometers and be done with it—if it was that easy, we’d have done that already and there would be no ongoing debate.

One might naturally think that astronomy students should be able to easily memorize a few benchmark sizes (e.g., Earth’s diameter is 12, 742 km and an astronomical unit is 1.4960 E 8 kilometers) and then they could handle almost anything by subdividing or multiplying.  The problem is that the characteristic of an expert, as compared to a novice, is that experts chunk ideas more easily, allowing experts to make quick estimates.  Novices have no strategies to be able to do this.  Moreover, Hogan and Brezinski (14) aggressively argue that an individuals’ own spatial visualization skill level is the most important component in measurement and estimation by portioning and estimating distances.  Unfortunately, these do not appear to be directly related to one’s calculation skills and teaching students to convert between units using dimensional analysis heuristics is mostly fruitless.  The bottom line here is that students rarely enter the classroom with well-developed sense of scales going beyond their human-body size and experience with movement from one place to another.  The cognitive science-based perspective of a novice-verses-experts teaching problem is well-poised to interfere with any instruction where students are being given sizes and scales in units with which they are highly unfamiliar.

As if this weren’t challenging enough, there is also the cognitive science-based problem of cognitive load.  Cognitive load is the notion that students only have so much working mental capacity at any one time available to apply to learning new ideas. (15).  That means when a professor says a comet is 10,000-m across, the Sun’s diameter is 1.4 million-km, the Virgo cluster is 16.5 Mpc, and a quasar is at a “z of 7”, students either have to stop being active listeners to your lecture for 30-seconds and figure out what those units mean and miss what you really wanted them to know, or they have to ignore any referenced numbers all together so that they can keep paying attention.  The teaching challenge here is that I suspect the most important thing you want students to take away from a lecture about a quasar at a z of 7 isn’t precisely how far away it is, but instead what it tells you about the nature of the universe.  The risk here is that introducing numbers and unfamiliar units gets in the way of the ideas you are most likely trying to teach.

The research alluded to earlier points to using relative sizes as being more fruitful for helping students learn than absolute, numerical sizes.  I try to rely on things they are most familiar with and then help them to use simple, whole number ratios.  For example, North America is about three Texas’ wide, the Moon is about one North America, Earth is about four Moon’s, Betelgeuse is 1,000 times larger than the Sun, and …. Notice I don’t have to say very many of these ratios before you starts skimming to the end of this paragraph yourself : That’s the same experience your students too often have. Fortunately, many modern astronomy textbooks now give planet sizes in Earth-radii, just like we have long given solar system distances in astronomical-unit Earth-orbit sizes (17).  I think this is a really good starting place. After all, five years from now when you run into an alumni student, do you really want the one thing that they most remember about your class to be the distance to the Crab Nebula in parsecs?

As astronomy teachers focused on student learning, we seem to be left no longer with the seemingly simple question of “should I teach with metric or US-standard?”, but with the more robust question of “do I seriously take on the semester-long task of teaching scales and measurement or do I teach using ratios using familiar distances, which vary widely from student to student in my diverse classroom?”  Re-framing the question this way is much more actionable and diminishes the less productive “science versus the rest of the world” notion.  I contend that this new either-or question is much more worthy of research and debate.

Personally, I have a lot of astronomical ideas with which I want my students to engage.  My personal belief is that I’d rather students deeply engage in physical processes and causality of astronomy, stimulated by wonder and curiosity.  I further want them to engage in how astronomy is deeply entrenched in society and technology.  To do this, I choose to give up on allocating the time necessary to fully teach the metric system and focus my efforts on teaching things in terms of relative sizes and avoid using a self-defeating calculator-task whenever possible (16).   Experienced mathematics teachers will tell you that you can’t really teach the metric system with a single 15-minute lecture to novices: Teaching the metric system takes a commitment throughout the entire course.  The notion that metric is easy because it is all base-10 is nonsense when it comes to teaching astronomy, despite my desire for it to be otherwise. The bottom line is that I decided that I want to teach astronomy rather than teach the metric system, and I don’t have time to teach both well.

My textbook writing solution (17) is that I provide sizes in both metric and US-standard units where it makes sense.  Against the common convention, we have made the agonizing choice to include the US-standard units first (with the metric units parenthetically) so as not to unnecessarily put off neither the students who find US-standard units to be less off putting, nor the vast majority of professors who desire their science course to be characterized by the metric units characteristic of science. My eventual, downstream goal is to provide size and scale referents for as many common anchor objects as possible without overloading the students, and focus on allocating serious class-time to teaching the sizes of a few core anchor-sized objects.  These anchor objects include sizes of Earth, Sun, Earth’s orbit, average distance between stars, Milky Way diameter, distance to Andromeda, and light-year, to name a few.  Fortunately, teaching the distance of a light-year is not either a metric unit or a US-standard unit, and is thus elevated above the present debate no matter what your perspective.


CITATIONS

  1. Helgren, F. J. (1973). Schools are going metric. The Arithmetic Teacher, 265-267.
  2. Vervoort, G. (1973). Inching our way towards the metric system. The Arithmetic Teacher, 275-279.
  3. Suydam, M. N. (1974). Metric Education. Prospectus. URL: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED095021.pdf
  4. Phelps, R. P. (1996). Education system benefits of US metric conversion. Evaluation Review, 20(1), 84-118.
  5. Jones, M. G., Gardner, G. E., Taylor, A. R., Forrester, J. H., & Andre, T. (2012). Students’ accuracy of measurement estimation: Context, units, and logical thinking. School Science and Mathematics112(3), 171-178.
  6. Tretter, T. R., Jones, M. G., Andre, T., Negishi, A., & Minogue, J. (2006). Conceptual boundaries and distances: Students’ and experts’ concepts of the scale of scientific phenomena. Journal of research in science teaching43(3), 282-319.
  7. Jones, M. G., Tretter, T., Taylor, A., & Oppewal, T. (2008). Experienced and novice teachers’ concepts of spatial scale. International Journal of Science Education30(3), 409-429.
  8. Slater, T., Adams, J. P., Brissenden, G., & Duncan, D. (2001). What topics are taught in introductory astronomy courses?. The Physics Teacher,39(1), 52-55.
  9. Eames, C., Peck, G., Eames, R., Demetrios, E., & Mills, S. (1977). Powers of ten. Pyramid Film & Video, available on YouTube at: http://youtu.be/0fKBhvDjuy0
  10. Cox, D. J. (1996, January). Cosmic voyage: Scientific visualization for IMAX film. InACM SIGGRAPH 96 Visual Proceedings: The art and interdisciplinary programs of SIGGRAPH’96(p. 129). ACM.  The IMAX Cosmic Voyage Video, narrated by Morgan Freeman, available on YouTube at: http://youtu.be/cMRoDyc8W2k?t=7m10s
  11. Jones, M. G., Taylor, A., Minogue, J., Broadwell, B., Wiebe, E., & Carter, G. (2007). Understanding scale: Powers of ten. Journal of Science Education and Technology16(2), 191-202.
  12. M.G. Jones (2013). Conceptualizing size and scale. In Quantitative reasoning in mathematics and science education: Papers from an International STEM Research Symposium WISDOMe Monograph (Vol. 3).  Available online at: http://www.uwyo.edu/wisdome/publications/monographs/
  13. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999).How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press. Available online at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=9853
  14. Hogan, T. P., & Brezinski, K. L. (2003). Quantitative estimation: One, two, or three abilities?.Mathematical Thinking and Learning5(4), 259-280.
  15. Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design.Learning and instruction4(4), 295-312.
  16. Slater, T., & Adams, J. (2002). Mathematical reasoning over arithmetic in introductory astronomy.The Physics Teacher40(5), 268-271.
  17. Slater, T. F., & Freedman, R. (2014). Investigating astronomy: a conceptual view of the universe. Macmillan-WH Freeman Higher Education. (available in the CAPER Team Book Store)

1 Comment

Filed under ASTRO 101, Uncategorized