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August 2020

Classroom Stories: T-5...

By Stacy Palen

This fall feels weird. Really, really weird. Watching the pandemic erupt at higher-education institutions all around the country has filled me with anxiety: for my students, for my colleagues, and for myself. I feel very lucky that my University is primarily a commuter campus, so we are insulated from at least some of the pressures that are occurring at other places.

These are emergency times, and so I try to remember to be a little kind to myself. I’ve learned at least eight new kinds of software and picked up rudimentary skills in half a dozen fields that I never expected to need, like music editing and network maintenance. I don’t feel competent at any of it, but it’s unreasonable to expect that of myself. I’ve had just a few months of self-directed learning…in the middle of a global pandemic and civil unrest.

In times like these, it can be really hard to pick up your head and look forward to the “after-time.” But there will be a time after COVID. And I’m already finding things that I want to pull through into that time. Zoom office hours, for example. Would I have ever bothered to learn how to do that if not for the pandemic? Now that I’m setting up office hours for my students, it strikes me as an obvious thing that I will want to do for all my non-traditional, commuter students in the “after-time.” An introductory video to post to Canvas before class begins every semester is also a good idea, even for a face-to-face class! And weekly discussions, where students can ask and answer questions about the topics of the week—these don’t have to be confined to class time. I’m embarrassed that I never thought about these things before…but I was busy. Teaching.

This week, I am polishing up my “prep” on six courses to teach online for the first time in my life. (SIX! Yikes! Our enrollment is through the roof…we are all teaching overload…) I anticipate that next week, there will be some “fires.” Lots of things will not go as planned. Lots of things that seem like great ideas now will seem incredibly naïve later. It’s important for me to recognize that there are a whole lot of things that I have no control over at all.

We’ll see how all of this goes. I have been telling our students (in the introductory videos) that we are having ADVENTURES. As I write this, I am five days out from the first day of the semester. It feels very much like waiting for a rocket launch, with the same kind of hopeful uncertainty. I’ve done as much preparing as I possibly can. Now I just have to push the button and see what happens.

Best of luck to all of you. I hope you find some time to reflect, as you go along, about things that you will want to keep doing in the “after-time.” I’m sure there will be lots of great papers to write, about online teaching and learning, after the emergency is over. I look forward to reading all of them, and writing some of them.


Reading Astronomy News: The Mystery of Titan’s Expanding Orbit

By Stacy Palen

Titan’s orbit is growing, which is unexpected! This article might be appropriate when discussing orbits, outer planet moons, or resonances.

Below are some questions to ask your students based on this article.

1) What did astronomers EXPECT to find out about Titan’s orbit, before undertaking this study?

Answer: They expected to see that Titan’s orbit was unchanging.

2) How much does Titan’s orbit grow each year? Give an example of a common, everyday object that is about that size.

Answer: 11 centimeters (cm). This is a little bit shorter than a pen or pencil, so each year, Titan’s orbit grows by less than a pencil length.

3) Compare this rate to the rate at which the orbit of Earth’s Moon grows. Is Titan moving away from Saturn faster or slower than the Moon moves away from Earth?

Answer: The Moon moves away at 4 cm per year. Titan moves away from Saturn almost three times faster.

4) For how many years did the Cassini spacecraft orbit Saturn?

Answer: Cassini orbited from 2004 to 2017, so approximately 13 years.

5) During that time, how much did Titan’s orbit expand in total?

Answer: 11 cm times 13 years is 143 cm, just shy of 1.5 meters.

6) The semi-major axis of Titan’s orbit is 1,221,870,000 meters. By about what fraction did this value grow during Cassini’s visit to Saturn?

Answer: 1.43 m / 1.22187 X 109 m is about 1 in a billion. Dang.

7) What is “resonance-locking tidal theory?” How does this account for the loss of energy from Titan’s orbit, due to the orbit growing larger?

Answer: This is the idea that if the moon tidally flexes Saturn, in resonance with Saturn’s internal ringing, energy can be transferred from the moon’s orbit to Saturn’s internal motion.

What other questions would you ask your students based on this article? Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments!