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…