This is a blog about teaching introductory astronomy, curated and primarily written by Dr. Stacy Palen of Weber State University.
Want to share suggestions or strategies for engaging students in Astro 101? Join us in the comments!
This is a blog about teaching introductory astronomy, curated and primarily written by Dr. Stacy Palen of Weber State University.
Want to share suggestions or strategies for engaging students in Astro 101? Join us in the comments!
By Stacy Palen
As I adapt to teaching online this fall, I find that the one thing I really need students to know how to do on their own is read the textbook. I’ve always assumed they knew this skill because I remember being in high school, checking out the textbook at the beginning of the year and taking it back and forth to school with me. Maybe you remember making covers out of brown paper bags to protect the books… and I remember teachers explaining some kind of note-taking method in great detail that I used for a while and then adapted to my own purposes.
But this falls in the realm of “things aren’t what they used to be.” Some schools now have classroom sets of texts that students do not take home. Some don’t use books at all but use free online materials. Some have ebooks but not hard copies. And even for students who do have traditional hard-copy texts that they can take back and forth, some of them never received instruction on how to read them.
This is interesting, because I have never taken ten minutes of class time to explain to students that reading a textbook is not like reading Harry Potter. Nor have I taken ten minutes to give them a strategy for approaching this kind of reading. It just never occurred to me. (I have given entire assignments to my upper-division classes about how to read a journal article, but that’s pretty specialized.) As I think about what I really need students to do while learning in an online environment, the textbook looms larger, rather than smaller, in my mind. Well, then. If that’s true, I guess I’d better tell them how to do it.
To this end, I made a video, about 10 minutes long, in which I explain my textbook-reading process. This is not a perfect process; it’s not the best process; and it might not be the process you use. But it’s a process that gets students thinking about textbook reading as a skill that they can learn and then adapt to their own needs.
I’m pretty pleased with how the video turned out. I made it on my iPad; I used the “Screen Recording” feature in the “Settings” to capture what I was doing in Notability. Then I edited it in iMovie and uploaded it to Kaltura. There is a little 8-second, University-specific boilerplate introduction that I asked our Marketing/Communications team to make for me so I can drop it into all of the videos I make in the future. This 10-minute video took me about 3 hours to make, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Going forward, I think I can cut that time roughly in half; I need to plan for about 10 minutes of work for each minute of finished video.
I’ll be making more of these, so let me know in the “Comments” section below if there’s a particular video topic that you need. If you need it, other people probably do, too! I’ll see what I can get done.
By Stacy Palen
No one knows what this fall semester is going to look like, and it stresses me out!
We might be back in normal face-to-face classes, but we might be back at half-capacity. Or we might be all online. Or we might start face-to-face, and then the second wave will hit, and we’ll have to go online for the rest of the semester. Or maybe we’ll just have to go online for two weeks, when there is a local outbreak. Or we might need to have replacement materials available for students so they don’t feel compelled to come to class when they are sick. Or maybe none of the above, because of the Yellowstone supervolcano, which I hear is currently scheduled for August…just kidding…I think.
In an effort to get control over the things I can control, I’ve started planning my fall courses as both face-to-face and online, in parallel. This means double the work, but given the magnitude of the uncertainties, it feels prudent.
As I have been thinking about this, and starting to organize resources and activities for students, I’ve also started to make a list of the things that are missing, and I’m figuring out how to pull them together.
Over the next few months, I’ll share what I’m doing to get prepared here on the blog. I’ll be making short videos for students about study skills, such as a “How to Read a Textbook” one, as well as other videos introducing and summarizing each chapter of the textbook. There will also be open-ended questions for LMS discussions that I can factor into students’ grades, and there will be web resources, such as “Using the Web” problems, which can also be found at the end of the textbook. And lots of other things that I haven’t thought out fully yet.
Many of us have taught online for a long time, and many of us have an online section; others, however, do not. I know that, for myself, moving four different courses (not just Introductory Astronomy) into the online environment before the end of August is…overwhelming.
I’m sure we are all feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, so let’s be frazzled and overwhelmed together! I hope you’ll share your clever ideas, resources, online or at-home activities, methods for interacting with students, and so on, in the “Comments” section below. Or drop me a line, and you can even guest-write a post about your idea!
By Stacy Palen
Sometimes, “learning by doing” requires the use of a model or a simulation. It’s not possible for students to go into space far above Earth’s North Pole, or to change the mass of a planet and see how it affects the behavior of the central star.
There are loads of simulations and animations available online. So many, in fact, that it can be bewildering to find what you need, and it can be even more complicated to troubleshoot technology to figure out why one of your students can’t access the resources while another can’t see all the buttons.
Gradually, we’ve been working to create a stable set of straightforward simulations and animations that support the Exploration activities at the end of every chapter of Understanding Our Universe and 21st Century Astronomy. Many of these Explorations are guided inquiry experiments that use one of the interactive simulations or animations.
For example, in Chapter 12, students are guided through an investigation of the H-R Diagram using an interactive graph. When students move the cursor along the track of the evolution of a low-mass star, they can predict and then see the changes in the star. This helps them develop an intuition for the properties of stars in different regions of the H-R Diagram, and helps them learn how stars like the Sun evolve after they leave the main sequence.
Explorations using simulations or animations have pre-built assignments in SmartWork that include hints for difficult questions, and prompt students to explore the interactive graphs in more detail. It’s easy to assign these activities as a unit or as individual questions. You could also write your own questions in SmartWork or in your LMS (such as Canvas), which reference the simulations or animations that your students access through SmartWork.
I didn’t have “online teaching in a global pandemic” in mind when I created this feature. It was “just” something that I did with my classes when I had the luxury of teaching in a tech-enabled classroom. But I routinely assign Exploration activities as part of my students’ online homework. And I suspect I’ll be doing even more of this over the next few semesters!
By Stacy Palen
My favorite way to use Reading Astronomy News is to prompt classroom discussion. The articles at the end of the chapters are short enough that students can read them in less than ten minutes—if they forget to read one before class, they can read it at the beginning of class—and the questions are open-ended enough to spark engaging discussions about other topics that students have been reading about.
I find that if I have a classroom discussion once or twice near the beginning of the semester, I can sometimes regret it. Because then the rest of the semester is full of “Dr. Palen, did you read the Internet thing about the space thing that the telescope saw?” Or other similar types of questions that are, more or less, just like the first one. I almost never know what they are talking about.
At this current time, I feel that this Reading Astronomy News feature is especially important. While it may be true that (as Al Bartlett used to say) the greatest problem facing the human species is our inability to understand the exponential function, it is almost certainly true that the second greatest problem facing the human species is our inability to critically evaluate the news.
Unfortunately, classroom discussions are not what they used to be. While it’s possible to have a meeting on Zoom, a “discussion” really does require everyone to be able to see one another so they can be polite and wait for someone else to finish speaking, and so they can also see the body language that means “That was a joke!” or “I’m taking a risk by speaking up.”
In the latter half of our semester, when we were teaching online, I moved my Reading Astronomy News assignments into the online SmartWork homework system. Each article is available in SmartWork and has a pre-built assignment with a handful of questions asking students to evaluate what they’ve read given the context of the chapter material. I assigned some of these pre-built assignments during the last six weeks of class.
I don’t really know how well this worked. Certainly, students did the assignments and answered the questions. And they did a good job, too. However, it was deeply unsatisfying to me because I did not get any insights into how they were thinking about what they read. My goal with this feature and these assignments is to help students learn to read the news critically, and it’s hard for me to know how well they’re doing this without talking to them. It was beyond me, in the chaos of the transition, to craft questions that asked students to connect what they were reading to what was happening in the world.
Over these next few weeks, I’ll be thinking about how to get the same benefits of a face-to-face discussion without having to meet individually with small groups of students over video conference. Certainly, there are technological capabilities (break-out “rooms” in Zoom, for example) that I don’t fully comprehend yet. I’ll need to find some fellow faculty members or former students to be my “guinea pigs” while I figure out how well this works…
By Stacy Palen
I don’t know about you, but I have learned more about my students’ living situation in the last six weeks than I have any right to know. I learned that one of my students was homeless and living in her car. I learned that one of my students is living in his parents' unfinished basement with his wife and two children. I learned that two of my (senior-level physics majors) didn’t have computers or laptops of their own, and have always done all of their schoolwork on campus. I learned that several of my students have children and live in studio apartments (and I know what those children are studying in THEIR online classrooms). I learned that one of my students has two very young special needs children who refuse to wear anything but “Underoos” when they are at home in the house, even if mommy is meeting with her professor on Zoom.
And I learned that a whole lot of my students do not have reliable internet access. Of course, I suspected that already—because late last summer, a Facebook friend posted an article about students writing essays on their phones because they lack access to the internet in their homes.
A second friend who teaches English composition at a community college commented that she has a unit on “how to write an essay on your phone,” specifically for this reason.
Back in September, that sent me down a little rabbit hole to this blog post from 2018 which summarized a report from the US Department of Energy.
The take-home message is that while nearly all children ages 3-18 have a computer at home (94%), only 61% have access to the internet.
My University made what I consider to be absolutely heroic efforts to loan technology (tablets, laptops, and desktops) to students who did not have it. For weeks, they kept an office open on campus so that students could come and borrow whatever was available.
Many students were able to take advantage of this, but in the end, there was not enough to go around. (There is also a food pantry which has now moved to three locations off-campus.)
I thought a lot about all of this while I was (rapidly and unexpectedly) preparing to move my classes online. I thought about all of these problems for students:
And then I tried to think of the best way to ensure that this unprecedented situation “did no harm;” I wanted students to still be able to learn and make progress if they had the mental bandwidth to get it done. These problems were the primary driver behind my decision to make all of my classes asynchronous.
While I feel a deep sense of loss from not interacting with my students in real time, I’m convinced that this was the best decision for the majority of them. Many students “handed in” their homework in the dead hours of the night. Many students sent me emails at those times as well. Many students thanked me for shifting to asynchronous teaching, although some complained that they “were left to learn it all on their own.” It’s a fair criticism, especially since none of these students actually CHOSE an online course!
After I made this decision, I saw a number of articles from more experienced online teachers, who promoted the idea of asynchronous online classes. And several colleagues (here and at other institutions) reported that they tried to have synchronous classes, but attendance dropped precipitously, and they wound up shifting to asynchronous instruction.
As I think ahead to how I might best organize an online class in the next few semesters, I’ll keep these limitations for students very firmly fixed in the front of my mind.
By Stacy Palen
If you are reading this blog, you are probably already a fan of Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy. Often, the best way for students to learn is by doing it themselves. At this particular time, when we have all been asked to move our classrooms home, perhaps for more than just the end of the semester, it may be difficult to see how to make Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy possible for students.
This is a perfect time to investigate the chapter-opening figures in the third (or fourth) edition of Understanding Our Universe. The first two pages of each chapter feature an activity that students can do at home with items they have around the house. While I did not have a global pandemic in mind when I wrote these activities, I sure am glad to have them now. I wasn’t thinking that students would not be able to acquire additional tools…I just thought that they were more likely to actually do the activities if they didn’t have to go to the store first.
Half of these activities are observing assignments, such as observing the night sky with the aid of a star chart found in the appendices at the back of the book. It occurs to me that students might enjoy being reminded of these star charts as something nice for them to use in the evenings!
The other half of these activities are experiments or models. For example, students can explore the expanding universe using rubber bands and paper clips, and they can learn about thermal equilibrium using a couple of ice cubes and a few glasses.
All of the activities ask students to make a prediction, carry out the activity, and evaluate their results. Many of the activities lend themselves to photograph submissions in an LMS, like Canvas. A question or two in an LMS quiz or SmartWork homework assignment can confirm whether students have done the activity, and whether they can relate these activities to the chapter material.
For example, one of my favorite activities is the melting-ice-cubes activity from Chapter 17. It very clearly demonstrates that it’s easier for spaces in direct contact to come to thermal equilibrium. Connecting this experiment to the horizon problem requires students to think a little bit about what it means for different regions of the universe to be “connected” or “separated.” Asking them to take a picture of the cups and mark the hot and cold areas makes the cosmic microwave background more concrete, and it creates something swiftly grade-able that ensures that students have done the assignment!
As I plan for online teaching through the summer, and possibly into the fall, I’m working these activities into my course plan more formally than I have in the past. I’m also devising new ones to include throughout 21st Century Astronomy. I’ll be test-driving them over the next year or so. Let me know if there’s a particular topic you’d like to see!
By Stacy Palen
We are just past finals here at Weber State, and we have been having a lot of discussions about how the transition to online learning went. Among those discussions is a big piece about student cheating. This was prompted by a faculty member who has taught the online astronomy course for a long time (27 times!) and has usually proctored closed-note exams. During the second half of this semester, those exams changed to open-note exams taken at home (presumably!) without a proctor. The average of student course scores rose 8%, and for the first time ever, no one earned a “D” or failed the class.
Clearly, this was not a controlled experiment. There are several possibilities for why student scores rose, which are not mutually exclusive:
Figuring out what’s going on here, and why, will take more data, and probably some more experiments. We feel compelled to figure it out, because we want to maintain the integrity of the profession, and we want to help guide students to be better people.
Fighting against cheating can be draining. I recall a professor, for whom I was a TA in grad school, who carried out quite sophisticated statistical cross-correlation analyses of the in-class multiple-choice tests in order to catch people cheating on exams. He seemed to enjoy the challenge. I did not, and I found that spending so much mental effort on distrust really damaged my ability to find joy in my job. (Not to make it all about me…but I think students benefit when I’m full of joy, rather than furious.)
I take a different track. Even in my face-to-face classes, I give take-home, open-book, open-note, and written exams that students have several days to work on. I came to this solution by focusing really hard on what I actually want students to know or be able to do.
I don’t actually care if students can recall things; I care if they can figure out things. I also care to give them feedback about their reasoning. Consequently, I don’t give multiple-choice exams. All by itself, that makes cheating a lot harder. (Yes, it’s a gigantic pain to grade 120 final exams by hand. But it’s also a gigantic pain to run sophisticated statistical cross-correlation analyses, and change them every time the testing software changes.)
I don’t think students will ever not have Google (or something similar) at their fingertips, so it’s fine with me if they look things up. I write an exam that presumes that they actually do have Google, or the textbook, at their fingertips to look things up. Making this assumption lets me ask questions that are a lot harder to figure out, and therefore a lot harder to Google directly.
I do care that they “attend” class (for a certain pandemic value of “attend”), so on the exam, I ask several questions that are trivial if they’ve actually been in this class for this semester, but are impossible if they haven’t. (And I vary my lectures and materials accordingly.) This has the added benefit of automatically penalizing students using a test bank or an online service; they can’t get those points, and I don’t have to do anything special about it.
But the most important thing I do is try to make the exams personally compelling. I write a story for them, and then I drop them in it. For several years now, I’ve used a “zombie apocalypse” narrative. (In the post-COVID world, that might not be the best choice!) I used to drop them on a desert island.
In the future, I might try having them imagine they are teaching their kids about the sky, or they’ve been abducted by aliens, or that a time machine has transported them to the deep future. The common feature underlying all these scenarios is that they are on their own. I think the story matters; it makes the material feel relevant (even if they know zombies aren’t real), and it gives them an incentive to try to solve it themselves.
This semester, in the abruptly online experiment that we were all thrown into, I found that I had little to change about this practice. I had to think a little harder about the fraction of “attendance” questions that I wanted to ask, and what made for a fair question of this type. (I specifically referenced Astronomy in Action videos instead of our in-class lecture.) In my class, the average on the pre-COVID midterm was within a few points of the average on the post-COVID final, and the overall course average was just over 75%, which is where it usually is.
There are so many tools now, and so many different ways, to carve up a class into compartments that teach or test each content area, skill, or attitude; take a look at them, and figure out which ones will do the best job for the things you care about. Be sure to start by asking yourself this important question: What is it that you want them to know or be able to do? What are the deeper values you bring with you to the classroom?
Then, figure out how to design your assessments to reach those goals and teach those values. This may be overwhelming this semester, but as you look ahead to future semesters, you may find that you are changing a lot of things anyway. Changing the way you write your exams may save you the time and effort you currently spend on arranging proctors or catching cheaters, which will ultimately make it harder and less rewarding for students to cheat.
By Stacy Palen
I remember when I was in school, things would occasionally go badly, or at least unexpectedly, and a teacher would often say “It’s a learning experience; it builds character!”
Well. Here we are in the midst of a global pandemic, building character all over the place!
My university is in finals week, and I’ve just finished grading my astronomy exams for both Astro101 and the Junior level cosmology class.
It’s a good time to reflect on a few things.
First, I started with the driving directive that I would “do no harm.” I took note of the scores for each student when we were all sent home and decided that this would be the lowest grade that the student could earn. I felt that this was only fair since an online class is not the same experience at all. If they had wanted an online class, they would have signed up for one!
As it turns out, about 75% of the students improved their score (some only slightly), while 15% of their scores dropped only slightly—not enough to matter in the final letter grade. That left me with a handful of students (10%) who reverted to their earlier score. These were clearly students who eventually stopped handing things in altogether; a couple of them let me know their very good reasons for doing so.
I think those results are interesting and would love to know if others had similar results in their classes!
Second, what an amazing opportunity this is to identify which things students can learn just by reading, and which things students need real live instruction in order to learn! Maybe I would call this “learning by conversation” to distinguish it from Learning by Doing. We were sent home right at the transition from the Solar System to stars, so all of stars, galaxies, and cosmology was carried out by asynchronous online instruction. I noticed the following in my Astro101 exams:
I’m sure there will be more examples as I process, and think about how to learn what I can from this unplanned experiment. I’d love to hear what you are noticing about this idea of “learning by conversation.” It will help me think about tools to develop over the summer in case we are all teaching and learning online again in the Fall.
This week, we have a guest post from a colleague at Weber State University. In addition to teaching at Weber State, Adam Johnston is also the author of the blog First Drafts in which he writes about education, science, and personal experiences. In the post below, Adam discusses the shift in our methods of teaching brought about by COVID-19, stresses the importance of managing our personal expectations, and suggests using this moment to think about what our overarching educational goals should be. Click here to access the original post.
In the face of pandemic and social upheaval, what teachers and families and students are doing right now is nothing short of heroic. They’ve been sent away from their buildings and communities yet are told to still conduct school, and a steady stream of accolades are being appropriately shouted from our socially distant social media streams. Teachers I work with in the K-12 settings and my colleagues in university programs are building new vehicles and plans and schedules and methods on the fly, while they’re flying, and it’s all quite extraordinary. And our students — the two in my house are navigating all of this newness in the face of trauma as they try to finish a senior year of high school and a second year of college, respectively — are wading through completely new arrangements, unfamiliar structures, and major tectonic shifts. Daughter 1 still has belongings and a made bed in a dorm room hundreds of miles away that she essentially evacuated at the start of spring break; Daughter 2 is facing the reality of graduating from our K-12 system without a formal graduation ceremony with the people she’s essentially shared her entire lifetime with. These are just the two student stories right here before me, in our privileged home. There are literally millions of others, each with their own story.1
These are difficult times; I admire all that everyone, everywhere is doing.
And yet, I am quite certain that we’re going at it all wrong, for understandable reasons.
To be clear, I don’t think this education roller coaster was avoidable and I don’t have an immediate solution. School is in a massive mode of triage, and we’re doing the best we can in the moment with what we have in front of us. Let’s finish the year with that in mind, no judgements. And please, let’s not beat ourselves up when our teaching and our learning isn’t the same in these formats. In fact, let’s not even pretend that they could be.2
Schools are sacred spaces, places we’ve designed specifically to bring people together to learn, for their current selves and for our future citizenship and society. Sitting among the very greatest human inventions like poetry, science, democracy, beer, libraries, and music, I think that education should top the list. The problem is that we don’t realize that it is, in fact, invented — it didn’t come from out of the blue, after all, not handed to us on stone tablets — and that this means that we also have the ability to change it. At the same time, I think that schools are incredibly beautiful and beneficial and egalitarian and, overall, good, even as there’s always room for improvement and reform.
The latest model of education, a century old at least, is a vision of all children in America all walking up concrete steps and into congregating classrooms and spending roughly 180 days in these spaces among friends and caring teachers and chalkboards and frog dissections and readers and math manipulatives and recesses and maybe a unit on square dancing that doubles for both PE and music.3 Teachers love their students, and I don’t say this as a throw-away, trite line. I see this firsthand in classrooms. And, I know firsthand that students love their teachers. For all of the pains that we might associate with school and schooling, kids are walking up those steps into rooms where they are loved for who they are, where they collaborate and work with peers, and where they have a system that, for the most part, is designed to focus on the needs of each human. This may sound as if there should be rainbows and butterflies and fairy dust sprinkled about this fantasy scene, but I’ve worked with enough teachers, students, and classrooms that I can verify this is as true as my love for my own children.
In that genuinely caring context, schools and teachers create and cultivate community. There are reading circles and discussions; teachers know how to pair students together, and they know how to separate them; students share with teachers, in one way or another, that they’re excited or scared or having a tough go of things. I’m confident that every teacher worth their salt has a story of when a student, Kindergartener, 4th grader, high school senior, or pre-med major came to them crying. And I’m confident that each of those teachers knows about the celebrations in their students’ lives. And even when they don’t know the details they know when the kids walking through the door carry excess burdens or are lifted by extra joys in their lives. And in the mix of all this, teachers adapt to their students. Like I said, these are acts of love, hosted in brick buildings paid for with taxpayer dollars all over the country.
A couple years ago I reviewed the finalists for our university’s major teaching award. In the process, the other committee members and I pored over nominations and piles of supporting material, but the real joy of the task was in visiting these teachers’ natural classroom habitats.4 They were all expert in their fields and engaging in the classroom, well organized and clear. They were centered on students’ ideas and guided them not just through the details, but the big picture and purpose of a given teaching episode. I saw this in chemistry as well as in social work, in economics and education as well as in journalism. Yet, the teaching expertise and classroom seemed secondary to something else. The subtle but clear commonality in each of these extraordinary instructors was how they related to their students on a personal level. They revealed details about themselves and they knew their students, the personal stories, affects, efficacies, and histories. The connections and interactions were vibrant and joyful, simultaneously gluing and stimulating the class. In all this, it wasn’t merely a dissemination of information, but the building of relationships.
In contrast, I recently remembered and re-read Isaac Asmiov’s classic kid’s story, The Fun They Had. This was a futuristic vision when it was written in the 1950s, and still was when I read it as part of my reading packet around 1980. Set in the year 2157, the premise is that two kids are contrasting their version of a “teacher,” essentially a computer as envisioned before computers (or even microprocessors) were commonplace, with our human version. The children had to have their teachers tuned and occasionally repaired to deliver lessons in their own homes; and students turned in handwritten work that these machines evaluated. The plot twist here is that Tommy has found “a real book” in an attic and they talk about how ridiculous these pages are and how it comes from a time when schools were places children would gather and teachers were real people. As Margie considers the arithmetic lesson for the day at the close of the story:
She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.
And the teachers were people . . .
The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen: “When we add the fractions 1/2 and 1/4 —”
Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.
I suspect there are students, now, thinking about the fun they had only weeks ago. And they have real people as teachers, on the other end of an internet connection that even Asimov hadn’t imagined two centuries of technology could create. These are the same loving teachers, dedicated instructors, who host students in the learning environments in our neighborhoods schools when the doors are open. And surely, I know, they do all they can to sustain these relationships in more meaningful ways than Margie and Tommy’s “teachers.” But I also know teachers who, daily, break down in tears because they cannot possibly connect with their students in the ways they can when they’re all sharing the same physical space.
Besides interpersonal connections, there are clear advantages to working with students face-to-face. These are interwoven with the way that we’ve deliberately crafted our school system. We have lab benches and sinks, performance spaces and whiteboards, recess spaces and reading circles. The simple act of walking down a hallway as a class is an act of collaboration; singing together in the music room is a community celebration. Walk by an old elementary school on a warm spring day and listen for the joy that seeps out of open windows.5 If all that there was to learn could be had by reading, then we’d simply teach the kids to read and then send them home with a collection of books. When you’ve finished those, come back and get more; and when you’ve finished all the books then we’ll give you a piece of paper that you can put on your wall and gain yourself admission to a new school with new books.
This is, at its face, absurd. We know that there’s more to learning than just reading books, or at least that the reading of the books or the listening to the lectures or the watching of the presentation doesn’t itself turn into learning. There’s a working with and among one another that creates new meaning. Application and practice create new levels of understanding. Gaining a sense of self and making connection to something greater are important, if not critical, pieces of what we aim for in our schooling. Students talk about this in their graduation speeches, that there’s greater meaning and application and synthesis, and that schools aren’t really about the delivery of information into students’ cognitive processors. We’ve all had the privilege of experiencing this in our schools, and our students talk about these learningful outcomes and how they result from being on a debate team, a basketball team, a historical debate, a physics lab. They talk about what they’ve learned through all of the connections they’ve built and interactions they’ve had, with teachers and students and others.
The community, relationships, direct interconnections with one another—these are all the things we can’t expect from online education, now or ever, simply because this isn’t what online education has to offer. Rather than wring our hands and lament this, we should celebrate it. Let’s look at all that our in-school education does for us and herald this as one of society’s great accomplishments; and then let’s not expect online to do the same.
But maybe we can do something fundamentally different with online education in the future. It can’t be the same as the schools we now have, but it could be something else, something additional, not a replacement but an altogether different system with an altogether different goal.
As an analogy, let’s take trains.
I love to ride the train, big or small, near or far, and in so many ways it’s the ideal form of transportation for me to get from my town to another that could be 30 minutes, an hour, or two hours away. I have to plan ahead and be conscious of the schedule and a few various regulations. The infrastructure for the train, right-of-way and tracks, employment of the operators, and all that background operation have to be engineered and arranged, but once it’s there I have an ideal way to get myself from point A to point B. The arrangement is so ingrained into a community that I could easily take it for granted.6
So I imagine the painful scenario that follows if, one day, trains are suddenly closed. After a brief pivot, everyone scrambles and looks for the alternative transportation mode, and while I am really upset about the lack of my smooth and fast transport, I have faith that I’ll be given an alternative, a “plan B.”7 I imagine being handed a backpack and some walking sticks, and perhaps someone checks to see if I have the right shoes on my feet and they offer an alternative pair of sneakers in case mine aren’t quite up to the task. Am I then setup to succeed?
I have all the tools of transit, albeit substitutions. But it should be obvious that I’m not going to walk the entire length of the tracks. And no one could expect me to go at the same pace as the train. With this new mode, I have limitations. I need to change my destination and expectations. And, I’d change my perspective and gaze.
This would be a completely new experience. I like walking. I love putting stuff into backpacks. I might even appreciate the new shoes to try. I won’t cover the same distance, and it won’t be as fast, but with each step I’m going to see different things than I would on the train. Everything goes by slower but the concentration on specific features would be more intense. I won’t get as far, but I’ll get somewhere. Details will be crisper, the pace will be my own, and there will be choices about how I make my way.
These walks won’t replace the train; they’ll make me appreciate it all the more. But they’ll also help me see what the alternatives will bring if, if, I’m so willing to use the new mode in a way that matches what it’s good for. At-home learning could be self-paced and introspective, the chance to break away from the regular commute. There are opportunities to take notice of what might be in my backyard or where the sun sets at night8; my writing could take on a different form, focus, and structure9; I’m going to make a lunch from scratch instead of brown-bagging it or waiting in the cafeteria line. These things are all small, but they still provide opportunities to know my world and build experiences in a different way.
All the while, I’ll miss school and appreciate that community, the collaboration, the love inherent in that space. I’m confident we’ll get the train running again — a faith I have simply because I can’t imagine our society or my own personal world without it. So, this introspective, self-contained time away from the formality and congregation of our school buildings might be a good chance for us to appreciate what traditional schools do for us as people, individually and collectively. We might have a better perspective on what we value and prioritize for schooling in the future — the things we can’t otherwise replicate.
For now, and for any other moment in the future when we don’t have our schools operating normally, let’s not try to replace the system. We can value alternatives for what they are, use them for what they are, even draw from them for additional resources and learning opportunities. But let’s not expect ourselves, even with fancy shoes, to walk at the pace or with the inherent community of a train. Let’s not expect new tools, unlearned and mostly untested and most certainly un-utilized until now, to attempt to be all that we really value about education. Let’s forgive ourselves. Let’s expect less of ourselves, our families, our teachers, and our students right now. Let’s appreciate the walk, and, next time, in the future, let’s think about how any “plan B” is not just a different tool, but something that has an altogether different purpose.
Much later, when there’s room to breathe, let’s think again about what we want from education in the first place, “the fun they had,” and if we’re using all our tools and modes in meaningful ways to reach those goals. But right now, in this moment, in these times and with these conditions, let’s breathe, give ourselves a break, share some compassion and empathy, and just get through the school year as best we can.
1 The other human member of our home, my wife, Karyn, teaches knitting classes. As I’m writing, she just walked by exclaiming how much more work she is putting into new formats for her students who are dialing in online. They’re appreciative, but replicating what she can do face-to-face is arduous, and actually impossible.
2 Watching the various classroom practices whirling around me as though I’m in an educational tornado, I asked a colleague if they’d let me into their now-online class, just to observe and understand various strategies. They were initially open, but then thought twice and said they weren’t happy enough about what they were doing to want anyone else to peek inside. I can’t blame them.
3 The meaning of “all” and our dedication to it continues to have some inconsistencies. In spite of court rulings and legislation, schools are still segregated and unequal, and we can’t ignore this. I’m envisioning a shared ideal here, that we want all children to get a K-12 education and graduate. That traces back to the early 20th century, though the legacy of our schools goes back much further, still.
4 My favorite professional task is teaching, but my second favorite is observing others teach.
5 I know that “modern” schools are often sealed up and air conditioned, but I’ve been happy to get to live next to some older buildings with no such amenities.
6 Here in Ogden, Utah, while we don’t have the same rail infrastructure as people back East or in other countries, we do have a smooth commuter rail that extends up and down the Wasatch Front and connects to light rail systems in the Salt Lake metro area. More interesting, maybe, is the fact that Ogden is a traditional hub of railroad history, being the junction near the joining of the transcontinental line 150 years ago. This brought prosperity and interesting characters (and oh so many stories and legends) to Ogden, and we’re still built on that foundation even as the rail system has been supplanted by the interstate system.
7 A dear friend and backpacking companion tells me, “Plan B is the same as Plan A, but with rain gear.” This seems simultaneously so wise and dumb. And it feels universally familiar, in backpacking or otherwise.
8 It changes position every day, and as the seasons change the amount and direction it moves changes as well. Standing on an east-west running street as the sun goes down can give you some orientation, and watching this from the same place (though different times!) on different days will provide a good comparison.
9 Let’s admit that writing in the midst of a pandemic isn’t easy, though. There have been a lot of blank screens staring back at me these days. Giving myself the diversion to write in footnotes has been a good lubricant.
By Stacy Palen
According to this article published by the European Space Agency, the extremely precise mapping being done by the Gaia satellite shows that the warp in the Milky Way Galaxy is moving far faster than expected. This implies that it is caused by interactions with another galaxy rather than by magnetic fields or the dark matter halo.
Below are some questions to ask your students based on this article.
1) What is unprecedented about the data that Gaia is taking now?
Answer: Gaia is taking more precise position and velocity data on a very large number of objects.
2) What do astronomers mean when they talk about a “warp” in the disk of the Milky Way?
Answer: They mean that one side of the disk is twisted up, while the other side is twisted down.
3) Where else in your study of astronomy have you run into the term precession? How does that use of the term compare to the one used here?
Answer: Precession was also used to talk about how Earth’s pole points in different directions over a 26,000-year period. It’s similar to this usage because if you imagine an axis perpendicular to the warped disk, that axis would likewise point in different directions over time. The time scale here, however, is much longer.
4) What is it about the warp that makes it possible for astronomers to rule out all causes but one?
Answer: The speed of the warp matters. It moves too fast for anything but an intergalactic collision to be causing it.
5) Consider what you have learned about galaxy formation and interactions. If you were an astronomer, what might you look for in other spiral galaxies in order to confirm this result?
Answer: If warps are caused by interactions, then every time I see one, I should also see small companion galaxies that are very close—with orbits close enough to pass through the disk of the larger spiral galaxy.
6) The Sagittarius dwarf galaxy may be the cause of the Milky Way’s warped disk. What is the ultimate fate of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy?
Answer: The Sagittarius dwarf galaxy will ultimately be absorbed by the Milky Way.
7) Speculate: after the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy meets its ultimate fate, what do you expect to happen to the warp in the Milky Way’s disk?
Answer: The warp should slowly disappear, once there is no longer a galaxy tugging the disk around.