Tag Archives: physics education research

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!

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How to Make ASTRO 101 Classes More Memorable

Tim Slater, tslater@caperteam.com

At the end of the year, the perennial question ASTRO101 astronomy professors quietly ask themselves, “Well, what exactly did my students learn this year?” Yet, the answer of “what learning is occurring?” is often more elusive than one would hope. Perhaps surprising, one might think the question of what was learned is an easy intellectual pursuit. It seems only natural to assume that one could readily test students about their knowledge of a particular topic as they enter the class on the first day, and then again as they leave their final examination and subtract the difference to arrive at a quantitative measure. Although it sounds easy in theory, it turns out to be much more difficult in practice. As Michael Bennett, a previous Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and DeAnza College professor likes to quip, “the only difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference.”

The first challenge is how to determine what to use as a fair pre- and post-test. Although some exist, like the Test Of Astronomy STandards–TOAST, these tests are notoriously difficult to create that actually measure what you want to measure. A second problem, even more challenging than the first, is that students don’t usually being enthusiastic to take a pre- and post-test and often require cajoling to participate. Although there are notable astronomy education researchers around who are very good at systematically managing confounding variables, sampling difficulties, and measurement validity issues, they rarely often allocate considerable intellectual energy to this particular version of querying learning.

We’ve known for decades that students fail to retain significant information when attending an hour-long college astronomy lecture. It’s not just today’s millennial students either, but was true even when we professors were college students years and years back. Few of us learned our astronomy by listening to a lecturer go on-and-on about the wonders of the universe, even when using Kodak slide carousel projectors. We didn’t learn much of it watching Carl Sagan on television either. Instead, for many of us, it was the outside of class work, pouring over the textbook, and talking with our peers and professor out of class, perhaps even long after sunset in the observatory, where we learned most of our astronomy. And, for the vast majority of us, we didn’t actually learn our juiciest astronomy until we began to formally teach astronomy in a classroom, share the night sky under the dome, or in the park talking with the public. The real learning of astronomy, as it turns out, is much more about social transmission than solitary book learning or listening.

Insights from the field of cognitive science provide tremendous insight into helping professors increase the amount of learning that can occur in ASTRO101. However, in order to leverage these insights, it helps to reframe our departure point from “What did students learn?” to the far less depressing and more action-oriented question of “What can I do to enhance what students remember about my ASTRO101 class?” In other words, my thesis is that informed ASTRO 101 professors can dramatically increase their success by focusing on memory, rather than on learning. As it turns out, memory is much more malleable than you might think.

From the perspective of the cognitive scientist, our human brain memory system is composed of two distinct components: working memory and long term memory. Working memory is the highly fragile and quickly fleeting notions and concepts that we keep in our head for a very short period of time before they are dismissed. Where did you last see your car keys? What was the name of the check-out clerk at the grocery store? How much was a gallon of milk when I was last at the store? What did I have for lunch yesterday? What was the name of the fifth brightest star in Aurigae. These are things we “know” only for a short-time. They are best characterized as things we don’t dwell on very much.

At any one time, human beings on average can manage only about seven things in their working memory. That’s how many digits are in a telephone number sans area code. That’s about how many variables you can monitor simultaneously when driving a car. You’ve probably noticed that if you’re driving in a rain storm, you usually can’t do extra things easily like talk on your cell phone that you can normally do in good weather. If you want to watch your working memory in action, multiply in your head two 2-digit numbers: 12 times 37. With some concentration, many of us can do it. But, instead, if I challenge you to multiply in your head two 3-digit numbers—123 times 456—most of us will quickly give up in frustration because that multiplication problem exceeds our working memory size, whereas the two 2-digit multiplication problem did not.

A critically important thing for upcoming master ASTRO 101 professors to become cognizant of is the nature of expertise. Experts are uniquely characterized by cognitive scientists as people who can collect and chunk information into packages to better squeeze more into their working memory. Novices, by definition, do not have the ability to chunk information into their working memory slots. As an example, consider when I say, “stars of Orion” to an experienced ASTRO 101 professor, that professor immediately loads as one single unit the location, shape, star colors, brightness, and star names into a single working memory slot occupying only a small 1/7-sized portion of their available working memory. A novice, on the other hand, fills all seven working memory slots with the seven brightest stars of Orion, and is unable to attend to colors or brightnesses let alone right ascension, declination, hour angle or even mythological origin of its name. This is a tremendous problem for ASTRO 101 professors, who can easily talk about Orion’s parts and compare it to other constellations or asterisms as well its altitude at different geographic latitudes when a novice is simply overwhelmed. The end implication here is that professional research astronomers are naturally inclined to label some astronomy education research-informed curriculum innovations as too simplistic for their students when in fact it instead presses the limits on students’ ability to comprehend. This is an intellectually precarious predicament. Our expertise gets in our way of understanding that we are fundamentally different than our students. My point is that there is a limit to how much information you can force feed students, and it is far less than most new astronomy professors initially think.

The other component of memory is long term memory. Long term memory permanently holds the names, numbers, images, cartoons, movies, and stories that are burned so deeply into our brains that we are loath to forget. You might recall things that happened to you decades ago— the birth of a child, advice an elder shared with you, or how you felt about the unique smell of a special place. These long term memories are also those things you’ve rehearsed time and time again—the names of stars, the sequence of moon phases, and the start-up sequence of your favorite dome. These are notions, both positive and negative, that you couldn’t forget if you tried.

Before you quickly jump to the natural question of how does one move things from short-term working memory into long-term permanent storage memory, let’s consider how these two things are different. Working memory is characterized by information flowing into it and then rapidly flowing out of it when the brain perceives it is no longer needed. This is partially to explain why we have few memories of the first years of our life—we simply don’t need the information cluttering up the mental works. (It is quite probably related to our infant-selves not yet having a sufficiently developed language to describe and encode those experiences into long term memory, but that’s a different article.) It also explains why we are able to completely ignore than thousands of individual pieces of irrelevant information that enter our sensory system when driving, and only pay attention to the most relevant. Here is the rub: For many students, decontextualized factual information delivered rapidly in the lecture hall often easily flows in and out of working memory without sticking around long enough to be stored in long term memory. The key to getting things to soak around in the working memory area of the brain long enough to at least have a chance of getting stored into long term memory is that the audience must have sufficient time to think about it, to mull it over, to see how it relates to other thoughts, previous experiences, and emotions, all without being distracted by new information or images that crowd their way into limited working memory. What cognitive scientists tell us is that memory is the residue of thought.

Perhaps surprising, we’ve long known how to get ideas to stick inside people’s heads long enough for them to think about it deeply enough to produce memories. This seemingly simple keystone is through the long-held tradition of telling stories. Allow me to advance a seemingly unrelated but perhaps powerful example that has been widely used elsewhere: Consider as a person living in Western civilization, you are probably aware of a widespread book generally known as the Bible. You don’t need to be a spiritual person or brought up in a strictly following Jewish or Christian family to have heard of this book and know some of its important contents. Simply living in a westernized society is enough to consider this example. Here is your task: List the Ten Commandments the Lord gave his followers. Grab a piece of paper and make alist.

  • Yes, list all of them.
  • Yes, there are ten.
  • Yes, one is about murder, and another about adultery.
  • Keep going.
  • Don’t worry, take your time ….

Ok, by now you’ve probably grabbed your cell phone or computer or even a Bible and looked them up. How did you do? Unless you have developed a mnemonic device, most people reading this probably struggled with getting all ten, or perhaps, even half. Don’t worry if you didn’t get them all, this is common even among people who identify themselves as regularly attentive Bible students.

Instead, consider the answers to these questions: What happened to Adam in the Garden of Eden? What happened to his son Abel? How long did Noah spend in the Ark? How did Jonah try to hide from his omnipotent god? How many following disciples did Jesus have? (And, for bonus points: Where were the Ten Commandments handed down and to whom?) My experience seeing many people take this informal quiz is that people growing up in Western cultures generally remember most of these things. This seems to present a contradiction: How is it that people cannot readily remember 10 simple rules of life listed in the Bible even when raised in deeply religious homes whereas most people of widely varying faiths and experiences can often readily answer these and an surprisingly wide array of questions about perhaps not so important details about religious doctrine to which they sometimes rarely pay any attention to? The answer is again, stories. We most easily carry information within ourselves through stories, and have throughout much of history.

Humans are innately able to internalize details within stories much more efficiently than even the most eloquently presented facts. This is because stories contain elements that force the listener to engage in thinking, and this thinking results in storage in long term memory. The underlying mechanism is that if you have to think a lot about a notion, your brain decides that it must be important and stores it for later recall. Alternatively, if you don’t attend to an idea for very long, then your brain decides it probably isn’t very important to come back to it, and discards the briefly considered notion.

What are the elements of a story that cause one to ponder it long enough to remember it? First, stories usually follow a logical sequence of events—a sequence is easier to follow than randomly disconnected facts. Second, stories are characterized by cause and effect. Characters do things and there are consequences to those actions. Sometimes a listener agrees with the actions, and other times a listener disagrees with decision a character makes. This is important, albeit narcissistic—an engaged listener must decide if he or she would do the same thing in a given situation or not. Moreover, stories can’t possible relate all of the precise facts that an observer would see, so the active listener must make inferences. What’s fascinating here is that these emotional connections to the story sequence, the characters questionable actions, and inferences from the left out details that combine to make one’s brain decide to commit the story to long term memory. The bottom line is that engaging in a story requires active thinking, which is why stories are better remembered than rapid firing of precisely articulated and cleverly illustrated facts that leave no room for students’ interpretations.

Although the idea that it is what is left unsaid in a story that makes it more memorable can be a bit unsettling initially, it does hold up to examination. Imagine for a minute a series of powerful images you might have recently shown an audience: Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Martian Surface Water, Pluto’s IAU Vote, or TMT atop Maunakea. Its only natural to tell students about the images. What if, on the other hand, the images were used in conjunction with questions, rather than the facts? In the spirit of being provocative, consider alternative captions in the below:


JUST THE FACTS vs VAGUE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

IMAGE: Hubble Ultra Deep Field
-This picture shows more than 10,000 galaxies in a tiny region of space vs  Do astronomers compete against one another for highly limited telescope time?

IMAGE: Mars Phoenix Lander discovering water
-Water observed on Mars vs  How could a Faster-Better- Cheaper Mars Phoenix Lander, created from spare parts, find water beneath rockets?

IMAGE: 2006 IAU Vote on Pluto
-Pluto is now classified as a dwarf planet vs  Pluto is still there; but, why can’t smart humans agree on its category?

IMAGE: Artist’s Conception of Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea
-is being built in Hawai’i vs  Where should the next great new telescope be built?


My thesis here could naturally be misinterpreted as suggesting that facts are unimportant or that students don’t really care about hearing cool facts. In stark contrast, I am convinced that students really do want to hear about what’s it called, how big is it, how far away, and how did it get that way? What I am advocating here is that although precisely articulated and cleverly articulated facts are definitely cool, they are insufficient on their own to deeply engage the audience in a memorable experience. Given that memories are the residue of thinking, it behooves the compassionate ASTRO 101 professor to be sure that the students has the opportunity to ponder questions, make inferences, and be positioned to welcome the facts and figures available to them when they’re primed and ready. The implication from cognitive science is that astronomy lectures should be filled with ponderous questions and connected stories that the students can hang on to during each class. Taken together, all of this means that with purposeful effort, ASTRO 101 classrooms can be uniquely created to make meaningful and memorable connections between students and the cosmos.

Bibliography for Further Reading (Check Out the CAPER Team Amazon Book Store):

  • Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.
  • Levitt, S. D. (2014). Think like a freak: The authors of freakonomics offer to retrain your brain. Simon and Schuster.
  • Slater, S. J., Slater, T. F., & Bailey, J. M. (2010). Discipline-Based Education Research: A Scientist’s Guide. WH Freeman.
  • Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

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How to Use Video Most Effectively in #ASTRO101

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

NoProbably notI seriously doubt itIt’s just not a good idea. and I’m dubious.  These are the most common responses all consulted teaching experts give when queried by colleagues about whether or not they should show videos in their introductory astronomy survey class. Sounds pretty negative doesn’t it?  This negative reaction is the direct result of seeing professor after professor misuse and abuse otherwise perfectly good videos during class.

It’s not that there aren’t great video resources out there: there really are amazing video resources available in astronomy, perhaps more than any other field (other than oceanography).  The number of high production astronomy videos made in the last decade is nothing short of astronomical. Satellite television providers such as the Discovery Channel, History Channel, NASA TV and Science TV have joined the longstanding and highly respected video production efforts of IMAX, PBS, and the National Geographic Society NatGEO TV—just to name a few of the many talented production efforts out there—to super high-production quality videos and video series.

For one, the most highly rated of these videos show the best “talking head” profiles of some of the most influential and photogenic astronomers around.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has thousands of social media followers and has even appeared repeatedly on television talk shows like Comedy Channel’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Steven Cobert’s Cobert Report, as well as popular late night television talk shows. These videos go a long way to helping viewers see that astronomy is a human enterprise.  Moreover, many of these videos do a reasonably good job of showing today’s astronomers as being highly diverse in racial demographic and quite a few women.  The good news here is that television can play a role in helping expand and enhance the stereotypical image of an astronomer from being only a white-haired (or non-haired) white male smoking a pipe in a cold, mountain-top observatory to a more contemporary view of astronomers as being equally likely to being a partying group young males and females from across the racial spectrum.  As evidence, I submit to you that the NASA JPL video clips showing young astronomers dancing, yelling, and celebrating during successful Mars landings are enormously popular on video websites like YouTubeSome of these individuals even acquire a tremendous social media following that greatly extends their previously allotted 15 minutes of fame.  In other words, these videos can serve to enhance the image of astronomers as people, and perhaps even improve the nation’s evaporating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career pipeline.

Perhaps more important than showing astronomers as being a diverse group of people, these videos include the latest and greatest graphics-intensive animations and computer simulations.  There are only three words to describe these animations—and all three of them are “WOW.”  Many of these animations have a wow-factor that make even the most curmudgeonly critical astronomers look up from their computers and pause to watch.  Over the last decade, the entire career field of scientific visualization has stood up to take advantage of and match new computer graphics capabilities with the high-computing power that was once restricted to supercomputers and is now found waiting inside desktop machines.  NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Scientific Visualization Studio, as but one example, has hundreds of videos ready for Internet download that can be used equally well in television documentaries as well as in astronomy classrooms.  In other words, the resources are there and ready to go, so why don’t we just turn them on and let them run for the entire class session?  Or even better, if students can watch these amazing videos in the evenings while wearing their bunny slippers, then there doesn’t seem to be any need for students or faculty to go through the hassle of fighting for a parking place and coming to campus at all!

Taken together, the current situation seems to be that we have engaging and good looking speakers describing super high-quality animations just a mouse click away. This entire notion of using videos IN class—or using videos FOR class altogether—sounds like a no brainer, WIN-WIN situation for everyone. This is especially true when you remember that too many astronomy professors are simply terrible lecturers to begin with.  (Personal Note: I have been driven to the edge of complete despair watching professors read a textbook to their students in an endless monotone flux too many times to count.) You might be inclined to say, “hey, what are we waiting for? Bring on the videos?

But, as it seems with every “force” in the universe, there are unfortunate dark sides of using even the highest quality and most scientifically accurate videos in your astronomy class.  One has to do with the innate—and perhaps immutable—nature of students.  Will students pay attention to a video better than a live lecture? Faculty probably wonder, even if only as an mere idle curiosity, how many of their students are really paying attention to their lecture as the hour wears on. The answer is, not many. We often hear colleagues say, “ah, today’s students just can’t seem to pay attention like they used to.”  Of course, those same colleagues are really talking about themselves!  Nearly forty years ago, researchers discovered that the worst fears of college lecturers are in fact true: Verner and Dickinson (1967) observed lectures and found that only 66% of students showed the slightest signs of attention to lectures after 18 minutes, compared to the beginning of the lecture.  And, worse yet, essentially no students they observed showed signs that they were completely attentive after 35 minutes.  That’s not a good omen.

In the end, students are not likely to watch a video with any more interest than they are to watch a lecture.  Research backs too backs up this supposition.  Fascinating research by Alison Gopnik, author of the famed book Scientist in the Crib, and Patricia Kuhl, studying the development of language, reports in recent research that infants do not learn from video of their mother with nearly the same attention that they will when mom is physically present.

The more argumentative reader might pose that students are able to watch Hollywood movies for hours on end with rapt attention, remembering some of the most obscure details.  Again, research helps us understand what is going on.  Daniel Willingham proposes in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, that video material being presented needs to at least have the potential to make an emotional connection with the listener in order to be deeply remembered.  Hollywood movies and adventure television shows do this in spades: the damsel in distress ready to be rescued, the seemingly impossible to solve mystery, the hero’s journey from adversity to triumph.  One would be greatly surprised if even the most accurate of black hole animations stands well-poised to make an emotional connection for many students—geez, animations generally only seem to barely generate recognizable emotions within professors themselves when videos have glaring mistakes that provoke a professors’ ilk (Do I need to remind you about the Disney movie, “The Black Hole”?).

The other component of a dark side of using videos has to do with the innate nature of professors.  By and large, professors seem to be insanely busy people—if you aren’t sure this is true, all you need to do is ask a few and they will be happy to tell you how busy they are. Many professors travel frequently and need to miss class.  Because professors are people, when a professor has to miss a class or don’t have time to prepare for class, one seemingly easily implementable solution is to show their class a video.  As a substitute for a well-planned lecture, rather than no lecture at all, a video might initially seem like a reasonable option.  As pointed out earlier, modern videos have fantastic animations, good looking and well-spoken experts, and sometimes engaging story lines.  But the reason we have professors who are experts in the field teach classes is not that they are great speakers—if we only needed great speakers we’d hire actors to teach our classes—rather, we hire experts because they should be able to coach students along the pathway of learning astronomy.  When a professor understands the material, they are able to probe students understanding by posing examples and counter examples of different concepts to help students extend their understanding.  Moreover, they are able to provide rapid feedback to students who are struggling to learn astronomy in ways that performing actors just can’t do.  In other words, it’s the two-way human interaction that is needed, not the attractive downloading of information, which constitutes effective astronomy teaching.

Fortunately, there are some effective strategies to take full advantage of high-quality video resources. One is to use only short video clips of about 3 minutes (5 minutes as an absolute maximum).  The key is to have a very specific reason for using the video clip and to fully inform students what they are about to see, why you are showing it to them, and what they are supposed to take away: this is precisely the same tried-and-true presentation skills from physics education research about how to do effective classroom demonstrations.  When Thornton and Sokoloff researched interactive lecture demonstrations (ILDs) in teaching physics, they found that what a professor does BEFORE they do a demonstration was much more influential than anything that a professor did after the demonstration.  So, that is going to be true with videos too.  In fact, one sure-fire strategy is to pause a video (or demonstration) in the middle and ask students to justify predictions about what they think might be going to see next.  It really does work!

If you are committed to having students watch a really great, but hour long video presentation—like COSMOS—then the cardinal rule is that instructors need a scheme to help students intellectually participate in and interact with the ideas in the video.  Motivated because we are trying to improve the different Internet-based, asynchronous distance learning astronomy courses we teach, we have been experimenting with STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDE worksheets.

Student Video Discussion Guide

Student Video Discussion Guide

The general idea underlying the STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDE is to keep the student intellectually engaged with the video while it is playing.  Leveraging Bloom’s Taxonomy, we present the students with three distinct levels of questions.  For an hour-long video, we first ask four to eight factual, knowledge-level questions from the video.  An example is, How far above Earth’s surface is the Hubble Space Telescope?  The point of these first-tier questions are to help students focus on the more relevant facts shared in the video.  The second thing we pose to students are two to four deeper level, synthesis and evaluation questions from the video.   An example is, “Were the Hubble’s observations of Mars or Saturn the most scientifically valuable?”  Finally, we post one or two self-reflection questions.  The point of these questions is to attempt to make the information in the video more emotionally relevant to students so that they have a better chance of internalizing the ideas.  An example of one of these self-reflection questions is, “Of the many Hubble images shown, which 12 HST images would you pick to use in a calendar and why?” To be clear, we give the students the questions on the STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDE before the video starts and encourage them to look over the questions before the video starts so that they know precisely what that are looking for while watching the video. You can find many examples of these STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDES in the Astronomy Faculty Lounge at http://astronomy.facultylounge.whfreeman.com/ by searching the resources under VIDEOS.

We began this discussion by saying, NO, you really shouldn’t use videos in your classroom. In the end, I don’t really believe that—I was trying to catch your attention by being a bit contrarian.  The truth is that there are amazing video resources available for teaching astronomy.  However, astronomy education research clearly shows that it is irresponsible just to turn on the video as a classroom babysitter and hope that students will benefit.  Like using textbook reading assignments, LECTURE TUTORIALS FOR INTRODUCTORY ASTRONOMY, or online homework systems, videos too need to have a specific educational purpose for their inclusion and their rationale explained to students to generate their buy in.  In other words, for videos to be effective, you need to successfully convince students that the videos used will specifically help them get a better grade in your course and, most importantly, will help students learn more astronomy.

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To Textbook or Not To Textbook? That is the question.

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

Even before I became a textbook author, I was party to more than one water cooler conversation about whether or not faculty should require students to purchase textbooks [viz., http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/astrolrner/message/4958].  Now, that I am an introductory astronomy textbook author, I still feel the same way—there are some benefits to assigning a textbook to students and, more importantly, tremendous risks in not doing so.

Most folks who have moved away from textbooks entirely face a pretty serious problem in that the professor, and the professor’s notes, all too often can become the sole source of knowledge and expertise in the class.  Sure students CAN go look up stuff and get another perspective, but my sense is that they don’t, and perhaps don’t even know how to do so effectively given the variety of presentations professors give.  In the case where there is no clear supporting textbook readings assigned to students, the end result is an implicit and sizeable pressure on students—probably completely unintended by the professor— to memorize nearly everything that their professors say (or type onto a PowerPoint slide).  It is these “memorized transcripts” that end up being what students are able to answer on exams. At the same time, a hidden social contract in the introductory astronomy class causes professors themselves to feel a sizeable pressure to only ask questions about what they specifically talk about in class.  For my money, this is a LOSE-LOSE bet.  When I consider all of this, it seems to me that the astronomy professor’s job should be about linking students’ thinking to the ideas of astronomy and giving students feedback about how well they are learning the concepts, not about being responsible for delivering astronomy ideas in their entirety.

Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris
Some folks have tried using trade books or coffee table books or extensive fact-based web sites.  Although these are attractive, particularly in how they are illustrated, they lack the tried-and-true pedagogical tools that many, many students, publishers, and authors have worked through and tried to perfect over the years – explicitly stated learning goals, headings to structure student thinking, end of chapter summaries with review questions, and, gasp, even bold faced words to help focus student attention.  I’m not saying that these things are perfect and are not often overused, BUT, what I would say is that these pedagogical clues are important enough to student readers that having them in a textbook is more important than the pretty pictures and pedagogy-free writing of coffee table books.  

There is a dark side here, in that some students are preferentially disadvantaged more than other students when astronomy faculty purposefully choose not to assign readings connected to their teaching from a textbook—those are the students who already struggle with learning from your lecture.  CAPER’s Stephanie J. Slater argues in Astrolrner Post #5014:

Stephanie J. Slater, Ph.D. CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research

Stephanie Slater

Teaching using a textbook as a tool is pedagogical skill well worth learning.  There is ample research out there that suggests that texts are important resources for many students, including those students who are most in need of extra help.  Many students cannot take notes and listen to lecture at the same time.  Students with specific learning disabilities, reduced working memories, who are second language learners, or who have poor spatial reasoning skills, struggle to glean concepts and facts from lecture.  Non-text readings that are not structured with the coherence usually found in a textbook, or with the learning cues found in many texts, make life harder for our students who have ADD, reduced working memory, who are visually impaired, have visual-neurological dysfunction, or who have  reduced access to technology.

So, for my money, I think using an astronomy textbook is an important part of the introductory science survey course.  Yes, they can be expensive, but in the grand scheme of things that go into a college education, textbooks really aren’t.  My most convincing evidence is that the $45 that students pay for the LECTURE TUTORIALS FOR INTRODUCTORY ASTRONOMY initially seems outrageous for a “work book” BUT, students rarely complain because they really, really use the book as part of their learning and they find it valuable.  If students felt that the astronomy textbook helped them learn the material and they found it valuable, they wouldn’t care if it cost $235 (of course, if you haven’t looked at the half priced e-books or loose-leaf for students as an significantly lower cost option, you should talk to the next textbook sales representative that comes through the door – these lower-price alternatives are getting really attractive!).

I think the consistent problem that most astronomy faculty face related to textbooks is nothing short of simply OPERATOR ERROR.  If professors never ask students to be responsible for learning from the textbook without the instructor repeating or, even worse, and I’ve seen it, reading from the textbook during lecture, then why would students ever think a textbook is valuable.  This problem is much better documented in physics than astronomy, where too many physics professors don’t’ use the textbook for anything other than problems at the end of the chapter.  Eric Mazur says that, even at Harvard, students won’t read unless you require it of them.  My experience is that this applies no matter what your student demographic is. (I add this additional provocation for those who are about to say, “but my community college students couldn’t possibly read the book.” I don’t see any truly convincing evidence of this–readability on astronomy books show that many are purposefully done at pre-high school reading-level anyway.)

Investigating Astronomy Textbook by Tim Slater and Roger Freedman


Speaking for a moment as a textbook author, one thing that I have definitely learned is that no textbooks end up being perfectly accurate – even after tens of people read and comment and carefully check the drafts.  Errors do somehow frustratingly slip through the textbook creation process—and some faculty out there love to find and point out those errors!  However, I’m absolutely sure that if 25 experts were to look at your PowerPoint slides and listen to your lectures, very few of any of us are error free in our presentations.  Unless you’ve had 25 experts review your lectures, you’re probably guilty of giving out some misinformation.  Textbooks at least have had some (gulp, a lot, usually) expert review.  The other thing I’ve learned that I didn’t fully understand before is that modern textbooks have pedagogical tools, as mentioned above, that really do matter to novice readers.  Websites, nor trade books, often have these things that really do help students learn the material more efficiently, particularly struggling ones.

My thinking is that students should be required to learn from the textbook and that portions of exams should be allocated to material from the textbook that is NOT specifically covered in lecture, but students are specifically made aware of what they are to learn.  I don’t want to spend my valuable class time telling them facts they can read in a much more precise and attractive language than I can “say” during class time.  This doesn’t mean that you should abdicate your responsibility to helping students learn—however, if you are only asking your students to memorize what you say in class, you are missing a grand opportunity to teach students how to find, understand, and internalize material on their own.  And, for many of us, we hope that we are helping our students, at least a little bit, become more talented life-long learners.

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