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March 2022

Addressing Equity in Astronomy 101, Part 4:

In this four-part series, Dr. Stacy Palen will discuss her own journey toward recognizing and addressing issues of equity in the Astro 101 classroom. We encourage this to be an open communication and discussion through the comment section below.

To read the previous post, follow the link here.

Addressing Equity in Astronomy IV: It’s Different for Everyone

Addressing equity in the classroom is complex, and a moving target. There is a lot of pressure to modify a lot of teaching methods to be more inclusive: have flexible deadlines, creative grading policies, invite informality in the classroom, etc.  But these methods sometimes have unintended consequences for particular faculty members.

Consider this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Different faculty need to behave differently in the classroom, in order to be perceived as the “competent”. Of all the faculty in my Department, I am the only one who has been called “obstinate” by a student because I insisted that he learn to write proper lab reports with error bars on his graphs. Other faculty are far worse sticklers than I am, but by nature of their personal attributes, their feedback to students is accepted more readily. I cannot “get away” with being on a first-name basis with my students, or with having an open-door policy, as some of my colleagues can.  How do I know? I tried it. The boundaries fell, and I was swamped by people who were not even my students but wanted help with their coursework assigned by my colleagues.  My colleagues would ask for advice on how to get students to come to their office hours. “Smile more,” I would say, somewhat tongue in cheek.

I believe learning is different for everyone---what motivates any given student, and what works for them is deeply individual. In the same way, teaching is different for everyone---what works for you is deeply individual. Teaching is not a Shakespeare play, with a pre-determined set of lines to say and movements to make across the stage.  Teaching is improv (sometimes comedy) where the action can go in all sorts of directions along the way to telling the story.

All of which to say: be kind to yourself and your colleagues as you figure out how to teach more equitably. What works for you may not work for them; what works for them may not work for you. If you receive advice to try something…but it doesn’t work, abandon it, and try something else. Experiment! Tell your students that you are experimenting, and why, so that they can give you good feedback about how your experiments affect them.  Not only will you find surprising ways to engage students, but this will help you stay engaged in the process of teaching.  I suspect all of us could use a little help with that just now.

Addressing Equity in Astronomy 101, Part 3:

In this four-part series, Dr. Stacy Palen will discuss her own journey toward recognizing and addressing issues of equity in the Astro 101 classroom. We encourage this to be an open communication and discussion through the comment section below.

To read the previous post, follow the link here.

Addressing Equity in Astronomy III: One More Thing…Attitude Matters

Addressing equity in the classroom is complex, and a moving target.  I am often surprised by how the “real world” impacts students; it’s not always in the way I predicted.  During the pandemic, for example, I heard from some students that the low-cost eBook solution was counter-productive for them. Why? Because they had only one computer at home that was shared between two parents going to work and school; each had to limit their time on the computer so that the other could attend Zoom meetings.  Meanwhile, although the children in the household were issued Chromebooks by their schools, there were times when their internet just couldn’t keep up.  These same families were hampered when it came to attending class at a time or watching videos.

This was not what I expected, because I made assumptions about other people’s lives.

For some other students, laying out the price of a print textbook was too expensive, but they had a tablet at home that they could download an eBook to, so that they could curl up on the sofa away from the computer to read it. They had already laid out the capital investment for the tablet, so the incremental cost of the eBook was the best solution.

This WAS what I expected because I made assumptions about other people’s lives.

Many of my students “attended” virtual class from their cars in a McDonald’s parking lot, accessing the internet on their phones.  Some of them shared with me that they were living in their cars.  Others told me they didn’t have internet at home. Others told me they didn’t have QUIET at home. In any event, a car in a McDonald’s parking lot is not an ideal learning environment.

In the end, I let go of the idea that one solution would work for everyone (in retrospect, I must say “duh”.) I gave students multiple options for how to access…everything.  They could use the book, the eBook, the videos, my office hours, whatever tool they could access on whatever day. Because it was the pandemic, I also gave them mix-and-match assignments, flexible due dates, and office hours at non-standard times. And then I listened to them when they told me they needed something else and tried to figure out how to make that happen.

Was I exhausted? Sure. Was I overwhelmed? Yes. I still am. But as I went along, I realized it was just more of the same thing that I had been doing for years---trying to meet students where they are, to figure out the resources and experiences they need to take their next steps. I don’t think that being “equitable” in the classroom is really a new thing.  I just think the diversity is bigger now, so we must do what we’ve always done, but more. We need to be vulnerable enough to admit that we cannot know what students need, in advance. We need to be open to asking, “What do you need, right now?” We need to be willing to listen, and have a lot of tools at our fingertips, so that we can reach for a different one when the first one doesn’t work for a particular student. Fortunately, as we grow as teachers, that gets easier and easier.  Unfortunately, as classes get larger, it gets harder and harder to treat each student as an individual.  But if we keep expanding the “menu” of learning options for students, more and more of them will be able to find what they need.

Next time: It's different for everyone

Addressing Equity in Astronomy 101, Part 2:

In this four-part series, Dr. Stacy Palen will discuss her own journey toward recognizing and addressing issues of equity in the Astro 101 classroom. We encourage this to be an open communication and discussion through the comment section below.

To read the first post, follow the link here.

Addressing Equity in Astronomy II: My Framework:

My approach to course planning is to begin by writing down the content, skills and attitudes that form the goals that I have for the course.  I spend some time thinking about how the goals all fit together in a logical order, and if there are pre-requisite content areas, skills or attitudes that I forgot to include.  This process sets the narrative arc for the course and determines what I will focus on in each week of the semester.  Sometimes, I can find a book that matches my plan…but sometimes I have to write it myself.

Once I have goals and an overall arc, I start addressing the equity issue by thinking hard about multiple ways of approaching each of these goals. For example: Can students learn about ellipses just by looking at a figure? Do they need to watch someone draw one (and simultaneously talk through the process)? Do they need to actually draw an ellipse themselves? If so, is a rough sketch sufficient, or do they need to actually tie a string to two pencils, and make an accurate ellipse?  What is it that I actually NEED them to know about ellipses in order to understand about orbits?

This is a multi-solving problem. While students have preferences for how they learn best (or think they do), it’s simultaneously true that different content areas or skills are best learned in one way or another.  Furthermore, different students arrive in my classroom with different backgrounds or resources that leave them differently prepared. For example: If a student is not absolutely clear on the idea of a circle, or the term “symmetric”, then an ellipse is likely to be a different kind of challenge than for someone who simply lacks precision in their idea of an ellipse---that is, they may mistakenly think an ellipse is an egg-shaped oval, thinner at one end.

Because of this, I will offer many options for learning about each content area or each goal.  I often take a “Learn by Doing” approach, which is successful for many students, partly because it necessarily incorporates several different approaches for each content area or skill. Especially if students are working in groups, they can try seeing, hearing, visualizing, explaining, manipulating, touching, acting…all sorts of approaches all at once. In an ideal world, at least one of those approaches will help them reach a content, skill or attitude goal.

This is a menu-style approach to addressing equity in the classroom.  Instead of trying to predict what students will need (I am well aware of the enormity of all the things I don’t know about them!), I present them with as many kinds of ways to learn as I can think of.  Then I use assessments to try to figure out who I’ve missed.

One advantage of in-classroom assessments (like activities or think-pair-share) is that I can eavesdrop to see how they explain things to each other. That leads to a lot of insights about background concepts they might be missing.  For example, I recently discovered that some of my students don’t know what an “Appendix” is, so when the book says, “See Appendix 4”, they don’t know what that means.  This is a perfectly logical result when someone who grew up with physical books runs into someone who has only ever read eBooks…and not one that I could have predicted, a priori.  I just had to try stuff, and then listen in to find out when confusion happened!  It’s also a problem that can be fixed with a sentence, or even just a phrase, that gives students the information they need to find Appendix 4.  I would never have known that this was an issue if I were not moving around the room, listening in.

Next time: Adjusting my attitude.

Addressing Equity in Astronomy 101, Part 1:

Over the past few years, major events have brought into the spotlight the injustices some face in their everyday lives. Unfortunately, the world of academia offers no exemptions. Every student differs when it comes to factors like race, age, gender and gender expression, socio-economic status, technology access, and food security. In the introductory astronomy classroom, our challenge is to reach every student, regardless of their background.

In this four-part series, Dr. Stacy Palen will discuss her own journey toward recognizing and addressing issues of equity in the Astro 101 classroom. We encourage this to be an open communication and discussion through the comment section below.


Before I really dive in, let me first say that the issue of equity is complex, fast-moving and developing. Equity is an issue of fairness and justice in the way people are treated.  But we can’t always identify these issues without help from others.  In the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”  Be a little kind to yourself as you learn all the ways that we, both individually and as a society, fail to live up to our stated goal of “justice for all”.

There are many axes along which people may lack equity or fair treatment.  An incomplete list might include socio-economic status, sex, race, age, marital status, and disabilities of all kinds. My goal is to make every bit of astronomy as approachable as possible for every student in my classroom.  This is hard to do, frankly. It has meant learning to see the pursuit of equity as a challenge, a puzzle, or a chance to sharpen my problem-solving skills. Like most faculty, I am often overwhelmed by my To-Do list which literally never gets shorter, and it can sometimes be hard to summon enthusiasm for creating yet another way to explain a concept or teach a skill.  Usually, I can find the grit to take a deep breath and then dive in.

I should say a few words about where I teach, to clarify my background.  I am not an expert in educational equity, race or gender relations, or any kind of sociology.  Instead, I am a person who has spent a long time in the trenches of teaching and learning, trying to adapt to the environments in which I work. I have been 20 years now at Weber State University in Ogden, UT. We are a “regional, open-enrollment, dual-mission University”. To translate:

Regional: we primarily draw students from the surrounding area who are non-traditional. Students may be older, married, have children, full-time jobs or be full-time caretakers for parents or other relatives.  A very small fraction of students look like the “typical” college student.  On the plus side, nearly every student lives off campus and commutes, so we don’t have any party-school problems!  On the minus side, that means they don’t really form study groups or stick around on campus to find out what a college education is really all about (I would argue: NOT job-training).

Open-enrollment: we have no admissions standards; we take everyone. I say we are a “second chance” institution, not a “second-rate” institution. I would put my best students at Weber into competition with my best students at the University of Washington (where I used to work) any day of the week.  The proportion of those top students is much smaller, however, because of the competing responsibilities in student’s lives.  Very few of my students can focus the majority of their effort or time on their education, and a very large fraction of them are first generation college students. First-gen students have special challenges simply (sometimes literally) navigating the campus.

Dual-mission: we co-locate a community college onto the university campus.  At registration, no distinction is made among those students.  This means a typical Astro101 course will have students from high school through the end of college and beyond. We have a significant fraction of “community” students; retired aerospace engineers, teachers working professional development, etc.

We also have a significant focus on supporting Hill Air Force Base, which means we have a significant population of current military personnel and veterans. Deployment creates a unique set of problems to solve!

Also in my background is my undergraduate education, which occurred at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, across the river from Philadelphia. Camden is a famously dangerous place to live, even now. It was there that I really learned what “disadvantaged” and “underserved” meant.  My eyes were opened by that experience, and I try hard to keep them that way.

This practical background has led to a teaching approach that has equity at its heart, because it led me to experiment so widely with approaches that could reach students who were facing enormous challenges in their pursuit of their education.  I’m not always successful, but I’m always learning.  And when I know better, I can do better.

Next time: The framework I have developed for myself for addressing equity in my classroom.