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Classroom Stories: Establishing a Common Vocabulary

by Stacy Palen.

Sometimes, you do a thing in class, and you think, “Why did I never do that before?!” That happened to me this semester, when for the first time, I gave my introductory astronomy students a first assignment in vocabulary building.

This was basic, absolutely basic. I gave them a list of astronomical objects. Then, I told them to go to the library, look at an introductory astronomy book, and find a description of each object. The objects included: planet, meteor, comet, star, nebula, galaxy, and so on. 

I asked my students to rewrite each definition in one or two sentences, and then to hand in their definitions in during the second class. I did not give my students anything “tricky.” No words like dwarf planet or energy.

The assignment was a simple census of the Universe: what’s out there, and how can we talk about it?

The assignment was a bit of a desperation move. Often, my students are not prepared for class on day one, but I hate to waste the opportunity to establish a good homework habit by waiting until the second week. This seemed like a nice compromise that would get them engaged with the material, even if they didn’t have their book(s) yet.

Most students did not go to the library (of course). But two of them did, which sort of shocked me. And all of them completed the assignment in its entirety. It took me only a few minutes to grade because every student gave reasonable working definitions of the objects. I was not looking for detail.

But since then, the real magic has happened in classroom discussion.

For many students, it’s been a long time since they thought about space, and they've forgotten a lot of what they knew. For another group, they never learned about these objects to begin with. And for others (the most difficult group), they think they know what these objects are, but they are mistaken.

In Utah, astronomy appears in the 3rd and 6th grade core. Therefore, unless their high school made a special effort to offer an astronomy class, my students may not have talked about space at all since 6th grade. That’s a long time to ask anyone to hold onto unused knowledge.

This semester, I’ve noticed the advantage of our common vocabulary when talking about physical laws. For example, when I talked about orbital motion, I was able to say, “These laws govern the behavior of all kinds of orbits, from planets to comets to stars orbiting the center of the galaxy to extrasolar planets. We will use these laws over and over again.”

And students had an idea, from the census that they took in their vocabulary assignment, how broadly I was applying those laws. The feedback from students -- in the completely non-scientific form of nods -- was more positive than past feedback had been.

Before, I felt that my students were not sufficiently amazed by the universality of physical law. Now that we have a common vocabulary in place, I sense that they better understand my own amazement, and that in turn helps them develop a deeper appreciation for our Universe.

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