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August 2019

Classroom Stories: A Useful Reminder About Names at the Start of the School Year

Credit:Tony Tallec / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

Here in August, just as we are getting ready to go back to school, this Teen Vogue article that came across my desk was a useful reminder that people care deeply about their names.

I have a name that is not very hard to pronounce, but it is apparently easily confused with other names. For the longest time people would randomly call me “Tracy.” Then, in 2008, I started to get “Sarah” ALL. THE. TIME.

So I sympathize with my students and their genuine desire to be called by their actual names!

Before class begins every semester, I scroll through the list of students registered for the class and sound out any names that I’ve not seen before. Utah is particularly famous for unique spellings that take a moment to sound out like “Aunistee,” which is pronounced “Honesty.”

It has served me well to take a moment to look through these names ahead of time. In fact, I believe this is one of those “top ten” teaching tips on some website somewhere.

I am completely up front on the first day with my 120 introductory astronomy students that I will not know their names until about week three. After that, I will only know their name if they come to class all the time. They are generally surprised that I think that learning their names is an important thing to do at all.

In order to learn their names, every Friday, while they are working on their in-class activities, I hand back the past week’s activity by calling out their name and then handing the activity directly to the student. (This is arguably required by laws protecting student privacy. Students should not be able to see the scores of other students. There are other ways to handle that problem, but that’s a different blog post).

If I don’t know how to pronounce a student’s name, I will ask them to help me practice saying it. Then, I will make sure to practice it again after class. When I’m inputting grades on their written work, I’ll practice saying their name once more, alone in my office, until I’m pretty sure I’ve got it right.

Knowing your students’ names is a surprisingly simple and effective way to make your students feel like you see them and value their contribution to the class. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to be perfect. I find that if I know about a quarter of the names in the class, the students think I know them all. Then, when I call on a student whose name I know, I use their name every time.

Some names I never learn. At this point in my career it’s usually because I can’t remember if this guy is “Joe,” “John,” or “Jim.” I’ve seen those names attached to so many different people that it’s hard to keep track. I simply call on them with “Yes?” and a nod or tilt of my head.

I often get a comment in my evaluations like “I can’t believe she knew all of our names.” I was surprised the first time I saw that, but in retrospect, it makes sense to me. Students can feel lost in a large lecture classroom. Hearing their name out loud helps them find their place.

Reading Astronomy News: Japan (Very Carefully) Drops Plastic Explosives Onto An Asteroid

By Stacy Palen

Summary: Hayabusa2 has been investigating the asteroid Ryugu. This is a sample-return mission, which has implications for Solar System formation and may cast light on the origins of life on Earth.

Article: Japan (Very Carefully) Drops Elastic Explosives Onto an Asteroid

1. Consider what you know about the origin of the Solar System. What are astronomers hoping to learn from Hayabusa2’s mission to Ryugu?

Answer: They are hoping to learn about the composition of matter in the Solar System when it formed. This could confirm or refute our ideas about Solar System formation and the formation of the asteroid belt. The precursor molecules for life are also present on the asteroid, which may give us clues about the origins of life on Earth.

2. The article states that Hayabusa2 “physically touched down” on Ryugu in February 2019, and took a sample of dust kicked up. Go online and read more about it. Describe this event in more detail. Do you consider “physically touched down” to be an accurate characterization of what happened?

Answer: The spacecraft approached the surface and shot a small projectile into the asteroid. A sampler horn collected the kicked up dust and the spacecraft moved on. This is not quite what’s implied by the summary sentence in the news article.

3. Ryugu is less than a mile across, in an orbit between Earth and Mars. Using an average orbital radius between those two planets (1.25 AU), find the orbital period of Ryugu. Convert this orbital period to seconds.

Answer: This is a review of Kepler’s third law. The period is 1.16 years, which equals 3.7 X 107 seconds.

4. The circumference of Ryugu’s orbit is 1.2 X 1012 Divide this distance traveled by the period to find the speed of the asteroid in its orbit. This is the speed that Hyabusu2 must be traveling in order to rendezvous with the asteroid.

Answer: This is a reminder of the definition of the properties of an orbit (what is the circumference, and what is the period). The speed is 32,000 m/s.

5. When was the spacecraft launched, and when is the sample return mission expected to arrive back here on Earth?

Answer: The spacecraft launched in December 2014, and will return a capsule to Earth in December 2020.


Image Contributor: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library, 1 March 2013

Classroom Stories: Sky Maps and Apps

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Credit: Vadym Drobot / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

Everyone has their favorite sky maps, planispheres, and apps. I am no exception! Here are two resources that I go back to again and again as I prepare for class or for observing sessions.

Sky Maps is my favorite source for star charts. The star charts are free, have the right amount of detail for introductory students, and they photocopy well. The back page has a list of objects that can be seen with the naked eye, with binoculars, and with a telescope.

At the beginning of each semester, I bring a stack of these star charts to hand out. I explain how to use them (pointing out, for example, that East and West are switched and asking the students why this might be), and then explain that during the semester, we’ll be figuring out all of the object types on the back.

I then tell them to go observing. I suspect that few of them actually do, but for some reason, they do not thereafter complain that I didn’t teach them the constellations! Go figure…

At various times and in various classes, I’ve used different planetarium programs on the computer. At the moment I teach in the planetarium, so this is not as critical a question as it has been in the past.

When students ask me for a recommendation, I recommend that they look at Celestia, which is open source and runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Celestia is a 3-D program so students can use it both as an Earth-bound sky simulator and as a space simulator.

It’s not the easiest planetarium software to use, but the price tag more than makes up for getting lost in the universe once in a while!

I’m not particularly fond of using phone apps for looking at the sky because I find that they are too sensitive to the tilt of the phone. This makes sharing them difficult, even with someone standing next to you. As well, I’ve always been disappointed at what I can find out about the objects in view.

Perhaps I’m just grumpy, but if I can click on something, I really want to be able to click on something and find out all about it. I don’t miss that functionality with a paper star chart, but I do miss it when such a vast informational repository is already available in my phone!

What maps and apps have you found useful for your students? Feel free to comment with your own favorites!