At Play in the Classroom for Thirty-Five Years: Recollections and Recommendations for Keeping Our Spirits—and Our Students—Soaring
Scott Hildreth is Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Chabot College, retiring from the full-time faculty next spring after 35 years. He’s worked with NASA on numerous projects, from writing about the first images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, to analyzing the latest pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope. He worked on NASA’s SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for infrared Astronomy, an amazing 747 equipped with a 100″ Infrared telescope in its fuselage that helped to discover water on the moon.
Retirement is looming. Each day ticking by comes with a thought that I might not ever give that specific lecture again, and with a nagging feeling that I still—after more than 30 years—didn’t perfectly nail it. And with that thought, each day ahead becomes even more important, bringing butterflies to my stomach, and questions like: What can I do differently this time? What can I do to really make an impact, to help make the next class even more effective?
And writing this, a similar question arises: What could I say to you all about teaching that would be relevant and helpful? Ultimately, teaching is such a personal thing, even if our curriculum is the same. Our institutions are different, our classes are different in size and shape and time and location, our students are different, and, most of all, each of us is different in how we teach and what we want to emphasize. What could I possibly share with you from my experiences that might be useful?
I think Pablo Neruda had the best response: “Every day you play with the light of the universe.” And that’s the key. Play. Have fun. Find a way, every day, to enjoy and treasure what we do. Thinking back, where I’ve had the most fun in my classroom career comes in three “flavors.”
First, in creating assignments that generate enthused participation by transforming our students into teachers. My favorite astronomy homework involves giving students surveys and quizzes to take home, where they know the answers but must query their willing (and sometimes unwilling) participants first and then explain the correct answers. Capturing what they did, what resources they used, and whether they were successful is where they gain credit. And astronomy gives us a universe of questions that are perfect for this kind of assignment, including asking why seasons occur, and whether people think Earth is hotter in summer because it is closer to the Sun (it isn’t—it’s farthest on July 4th!), or what zodiac sign was really behind the Sun on the day they were born (spoiler alert: it probably isn’t the one they read in the newspaper!), or why astronauts in orbit are really falling, even if they look like they are floating (be prepared for most folks to say, “Oh, that’s because there is no gravity in space . . .”).
These participation assignments are enormously fun. Even after 30+ years, having students tell me how they struggled to explain why their Sun signs are different to their significant other, or how gravity really works to their grandmother, is often hilarious to read, and makes grading 40+ papers much more tolerable. Students like knowing the answers, like being the “expert,” like being able to share something with family that they have learned. Many share that the assignments gave them a reason to talk with a faraway family member. By becoming the teacher, they must learn the material at a deeper level. My meta-goal is met, and I’m smiling as wide as the moon while entering grades into my Canvas gradebook.
My second flavor of fun comes from changing the mindset of students about who does science. This is done by emphasizing the many accomplishments of women and groups currently underrepresented in STEM, and in academia in general. I start both my astronomy and my physics classes by asking students to picture scientists in those fields—to describe who they “see,” what characteristics those imagined people might have, and where those images might have been fostered. Invariably, students have pictured berobed, bearded Europeans peering through telescopes or more than slightly quirky Caucasians in white lab coats, mostly men, often reflecting wonderful characters like that of Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown from Back to the Future or Bill Nye “The Science Guy.” For my engineering physics students, Einstein was always a popular choice, and a few students might have heard of Richard Feynman. Still, most don’t picture women as scientists; although, that is changing positively. When I started teaching, women were perhaps 10 percent of the PhDs and faculty in STEM, and today those numbers are higher: 40 percent of STEM PhD’s and 30 percent of faculty are women (Nina Gray, Inside Higher Ed, June 13, 2023).
After that initial assignment at the start of the term to picture a scientist, I start off subsequent classes with a quick portrait of someone else doing astronomy or physics or engineering. It is great fun to see the students begin to change their own perspective about who does science. Sharing a photo, a biographical sketch, a quote, or a YouTube video takes a few minutes from each class—precious time, to be sure. But after seeing people who look like themselves, students do seem to pick up on what unites us as scientists—focusing on being curious about how the world works, being creative with experiments to explore that world, being patient and careful and persistent—rather than focusing on what on the surface might seem to be different. When I have surveyed my students about what they liked the most from my classes, invariably they share their pride in knowing of so many people contributing to science from around the globe, and especially of people who look like themselves.
My third flavor of fun comes from intentionally giving students a chance to play in class by challenging them to work together toward a common goal. I create an assignment in an online quiz tool and give it a 10- or 15-minute time limit before deploying it to the class. They must then work in groups around a single shared computer to finish. Only one student logs in for the team, and only one answer comes from the team, so they have to agree before the enter key is pressed. Teams race the clock—and each other—to finish with the highest score. I have fun acting as a play-by-play announcer relating their progress in real time. But far, far better is seeing and hearing how students react to the challenge, with loud shouts of glee when the right answer is selected, and audible groans when they are wrong. Students who know the right answer will teach their teammates. Students who are unsure will argue about physics or science. Quiet students who might not say much at all during regular lectures come out of their shells when the competition starts. The classroom is noisy, turbulent, and full of smiles. I marvel at seeing an entire class actively learning and having fun while they do it. We’ve seen in recent literature how including “gaming” can increase student engagement, and I can attest to its value.
Whatever subject we teach, however we teach, wherever we teach, don’t doubt we are making a positive difference in the world. We plant these seeds of learning in our students’ minds but don’t always get a chance to see how those sprout and grow and blossom (especially at the community college level, where students are gone or transfer in a year or two). We must have faith that those seeds, properly planted and watered and bathed in the light of learning, will sprout, one day down the road, whether we are there to see it or not. I hope to see some of that growth in my class, but even if I don’t, I have faith the students will leave knowing more about how their world works, and how much fun it is learning about that world.
(If readers would like to see some of the assignments mentioned above, or get more details, please feel free to email Scott at [email protected])