Classroom Stories: Cheating and Exams
Classroom Stories: The Problem of Students at Home

Classroom Resources: Using At-Home Activities in an Online Course

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!

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