Classroom Stories

Classroom Stories: Teaching in the Trailer, or "This Will Have Been a Good Time"

By Stacy Palen

In my family, we have a saying, “This will have been a good time.” We use it to refer to upcoming events that will be stressful and potentially awful, but that we will remember fondly once they have passed. For example, when my snake-phobic husband and I went to the Amazon: he didn’t enjoy the trip while it was happening, but afterwards, he was glad to have experienced it. The whole time we were planning the trip, we kept repeating, “This will have been a good time.”

For years, I have taught Introductory Astronomy in the planetarium. This is a difficult space to work in because the chairs are comfy, the light levels are low, the board and projector space is limited, and working in groups of three or more is really difficult. The chairs don’t turn; the students have those little desks that lift out of the chair arm for them to write on; and it is almost impossible to get in and out of a row in the middle of class. If I want to access the computer, I have to go to the back of the room. It’s awkward, but I got used to it, and I figured out how to do both active learning and lecturing, even in this difficult space.

This semester, the planetarium building is being renovated so that we will have heating and cooling that actually work. That’s the plan, anyway. Don’t ask me why they couldn’t do this renovation over the summer. Figuring out the decisions of Facilities Management is above my pay grade!

My astronomy class has been moved into a “portable”—a double-wide trailer in the parking lot, which was furnished the day before classes started. The layout of the classroom is awkward, with students facing perpendicular to the long axis, and the computer being stationed in one corner. It’s like teaching in a hallway. The first week of class, none of the A/V equipment was working, so there were no projectors. During the second week of class, some of the A/V equipment worked, but intermittently—something about the HDMI cables, aspect ratios, and temporary equipment being incompatible with the University standards. I don’t expect this system to be stable for at least another week or two. I could complain about this (more!), or I could see it as an “opportunity” to try something new.

So now, I have jettisoned my long-time methods and materials, and I’m experimenting. I’ve reorganized the whole class to involve lots of mini-activities that can be done quickly in larger-than-usual groups, with lots and lots of peer instruction. For my students, there is really no choice but to read the textbook before they come to class, because it’s really not possible for me to lecture at all.

Today, we’ll negotiate the “points” restructuring, and my students will get to have a say in how much weight each component will have in their final grade. Now that we’ve done a few of the longer activities from Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy, a few homework assignments, and a few of the mini-activities, my students have a better sense of how much value each component should have. I’ve explained the experimental nature of what we are doing, and they are mostly cheerful about it.

This entire situation has got me going back and resurrecting things that I did a long time ago, such as using parts of Understanding Our Universe and Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy in ways that I haven’t before (it never occurred to me to tear the activities apart and do them over multiple days), seeking out new ideas and activities, and oh … let’s call it “innovating” … at breakneck speed. I expect a lot of this to be a mess, some of it to be useful in the long haul, and some of it to appear in future textbooks. It’s definitely a situation that “will have been a good time.”


Classroom Stories: Practice at Being Afraid

By Stacy Palen

In my other life, I train horses and riders. This means that I routinely deal with actual life-threatening situations like runaway horses and bad falls. Even non-life-threatening situations such as broken bones, giant bruises, bumps, cuts, and scrapes can seem routine to me but be scary for others.

Because of this background, I sometimes struggle to really understand and empathize with students who literally fear math and have an obvious physiological response to being asked to do it.

Recently, I came across a Facebook post by equestrian Denny Emerson about fear that helped crystallize my thoughts about this.

Two things you should know about Denny: First, Denny is as famous in the horse community as Tom Brady is in football. Second, his sport is more dangerous than most horse sports, as the horses race cross-country on uneven ground over solid fences that don’t come down. It’s not unheard of for people to die doing this sport at the highest levels.

Here’s part of what he had to say:

 

But we all experience things that create the exact flight or fight response as actual extreme danger that are not actually dangerous.

Case in point----Denny Emerson, age 9, is cowering in Miss Gibson's Four Corners School 4th grade math class, trying to remain invisible, as students are handed a piece of chalk, and asked to solve problems on the black board, in front of the whole class. As his name gets called, Denny is suffering the agonies of the damned, just as if he was about to be hurled into a pit of writhing cobras.

Which is another way of pointing out that the fear we so often experience is not actually in direct proportion to the danger we are in, but it feels that way.

So, then, it follows more or less logically, that one way to alleviate being paralysed by fear is to avoid, if possible, real danger, and to try to become better prepared to face challenge that only feels like true danger. Like arithmetic.[1]

 

Denny went on to talk about how to condition yourself and your horse to deal with fear, but I made a note in my mind of what he had to say here.

It resonated with me because a week or so before that, I heard the familiar whine of “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” from one of my students. (I refrained from pointing out that she was in astronomy class…practicality isn’t really the point.)

Denny’s answer is one that I’ve tried to articulate for a long time, and one of the best that I know: “it’s practice.”

Mathematics is not actually dangerous. AT ALL. But for some students, it feels that way.

Good. That makes it an opportunity to practice being afraid while holding it together and getting the job done anyway.

It’s practice at a tool they need in order to find success in the world.

Come to think of it, this may have been what my parents meant when they told me to do hard things I didn’t like because “it builds character.”

I probably won’t tell my students that—it sounds a lot like a curmudgeon's “get off my lawn” rant. But I may spend some time talking to them directly about how this practice can help them in other adrenaline-laden situations.

 

 

[1]Emerson, Denny. Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook Page. “More thoughts about fear, and how to live with the reality of fear without being a slave to fear” Facebook, November 23, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10155572672270947&id=109161715946


Classroom Stories: Vera Rubin Tells The Story

Dark Matter
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, University of Basque Country/JHU

By Stacy Palen

I was poking around, looking for something completely different when I came across this nice little vignette from "Physics Today" published in 20061. It’s the story of the discovery of dark matter, told by Vera Rubin herself.

The story is mostly accessible to introductory students, with only a little bit of stretch required in the single paragraph that describes circular velocities and flat rotation curves. Hilariously, she includes an "exercise for the reader.” (Well—hilarious to me, and probably you, but students won’t get it.)

If your students have already learned about galaxy rotation curves, they will be able to follow the paragraph. If not, it’s fine if they skim over it—they won’t lose the plot.

The descriptions of observing at the telescope, and the trouble of moving the spectrograph from one location to another really gives a nice feel for how hard it was to get this done the first time.

I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with this story in my classes yet, but I found it charming, and think it will capture the interest of some of my students who struggle to connect to this material. I’ll at least share it with them through the LMS so that students who are interested can read it.

If you come up with a plan to use it, tell me about it in the comments!

                

1 Unfortunately, the biographical information published with the article is out of date. Vera Rubin passed away at the end of 2016.


Classroom Stories: Psychology and Underrepresented Groups

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B.O'Kane / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

This week in Physics Seminar, we had a psychologist come and talk to us about a number of studies that indicate how stereotypes impact the performance of underrepresented groups. Generally, this refers to women and minorities (although other categories also intersect). The take-home message is that when underrepresented groups enter an environment in which they are the minority, they show a physical autonomic nervous system response. Really—heart rates and sweaty palms and all!

Dealing with this “fight or flight” response taxes their working memory, and they do not perform as well. Several other cleverly designed studies have investigated “stereotype threat” and have shown that when the stereotyped group is engaged in a task in which they are stereotypically bad, they are extremely sensitive to signals that confirm the stereotype.

For example, these groups will have a stronger negative reaction to a poor score on a first exam, and they are more likely to see that score as a signal that people like them are not “meant” to study science.

This is all very fascinating, but the speaker went further and gave us some concrete examples of specific interventions that help level the playing field. Interventions such as in-class discussions about the contributions of women in science may be obvious, but others were less obvious.

For example, one study had women engineering students wait briefly in an office full of items that evoke the male stereotype of an engineer (Star Trek posters dominated by male faces, gaming consoles, piles of soda cans, etc.). A second group waited in a very similar office which had slightly different posters (still science fiction, but less firmly associated with the male stereotype). This room also lacked the pile of soda cans and had an abstract picture of a flower on the wall.

Shockingly, the difference in performance on a subsequent math test was statistically significant, with the women who waited in the stereotype-evoking office performing more poorly. (Men’s performance was not affected.)

Astronomers are lucky. We have lots of examples of a diverse population contributing to our understanding of the universe. Highlighting those examples has been shown to improve performance by those who identify with the specific groups mentioned.

Conversely, highlighting the accomplishments of the majority group negatively impacts performance for the underrepresented group.

Interestingly, the majority group is not impacted in either case because they are not carrying the distracting mental burden of stereotype threat into the classroom!

The take-home message of these kinds of studies is that no matter how well the test instrument is designed, and no matter how much or how well the student knows the material, there are external factors affecting performance. These factors can be lessened by specific (small) interventions, like hanging up a different poster, highlighting diverse scientists, or intervening after an exam to point out that “this material is hard because it’s hard, not because you aren’t good at it.”


Classroom Stories: A Useful Reminder About Names at the Start of the School Year

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Credit:Tony Tallec / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

Here in August, just as we are getting ready to go back to school, this Teen Vogue article that came across my desk was a useful reminder that people care deeply about their names.

I have a name that is not very hard to pronounce, but it is apparently easily confused with other names. For the longest time people would randomly call me “Tracy.” Then, in 2008, I started to get “Sarah” ALL. THE. TIME.

So I sympathize with my students and their genuine desire to be called by their actual names!

Before class begins every semester, I scroll through the list of students registered for the class and sound out any names that I’ve not seen before. Utah is particularly famous for unique spellings that take a moment to sound out like “Aunistee,” which is pronounced “Honesty.”

It has served me well to take a moment to look through these names ahead of time. In fact, I believe this is one of those “top ten” teaching tips on some website somewhere.

I am completely up front on the first day with my 120 introductory astronomy students that I will not know their names until about week three. After that, I will only know their name if they come to class all the time. They are generally surprised that I think that learning their names is an important thing to do at all.

In order to learn their names, every Friday, while they are working on their in-class activities, I hand back the past week’s activity by calling out their name and then handing the activity directly to the student. (This is arguably required by laws protecting student privacy. Students should not be able to see the scores of other students. There are other ways to handle that problem, but that’s a different blog post).

If I don’t know how to pronounce a student’s name, I will ask them to help me practice saying it. Then, I will make sure to practice it again after class. When I’m inputting grades on their written work, I’ll practice saying their name once more, alone in my office, until I’m pretty sure I’ve got it right.

Knowing your students’ names is a surprisingly simple and effective way to make your students feel like you see them and value their contribution to the class. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to be perfect. I find that if I know about a quarter of the names in the class, the students think I know them all. Then, when I call on a student whose name I know, I use their name every time.

Some names I never learn. At this point in my career it’s usually because I can’t remember if this guy is “Joe,” “John,” or “Jim.” I’ve seen those names attached to so many different people that it’s hard to keep track. I simply call on them with “Yes?” and a nod or tilt of my head.

I often get a comment in my evaluations like “I can’t believe she knew all of our names.” I was surprised the first time I saw that, but in retrospect, it makes sense to me. Students can feel lost in a large lecture classroom. Hearing their name out loud helps them find their place.


Classroom Stories: Sky Maps and Apps

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Credit: Vadym Drobot / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

Everyone has their favorite sky maps, planispheres, and apps. I am no exception! Here are two resources that I go back to again and again as I prepare for class or for observing sessions.

Sky Maps is my favorite source for star charts. The star charts are free, have the right amount of detail for introductory students, and they photocopy well. The back page has a list of objects that can be seen with the naked eye, with binoculars, and with a telescope.

At the beginning of each semester, I bring a stack of these star charts to hand out. I explain how to use them (pointing out, for example, that East and West are switched and asking the students why this might be), and then explain that during the semester, we’ll be figuring out all of the object types on the back.

I then tell them to go observing. I suspect that few of them actually do, but for some reason, they do not thereafter complain that I didn’t teach them the constellations! Go figure…

At various times and in various classes, I’ve used different planetarium programs on the computer. At the moment I teach in the planetarium, so this is not as critical a question as it has been in the past.

When students ask me for a recommendation, I recommend that they look at Celestia, which is open source and runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Celestia is a 3-D program so students can use it both as an Earth-bound sky simulator and as a space simulator.

It’s not the easiest planetarium software to use, but the price tag more than makes up for getting lost in the universe once in a while!

I’m not particularly fond of using phone apps for looking at the sky because I find that they are too sensitive to the tilt of the phone. This makes sharing them difficult, even with someone standing next to you. As well, I’ve always been disappointed at what I can find out about the objects in view.

Perhaps I’m just grumpy, but if I can click on something, I really want to be able to click on something and find out all about it. I don’t miss that functionality with a paper star chart, but I do miss it when such a vast informational repository is already available in my phone!

What maps and apps have you found useful for your students? Feel free to comment with your own favorites!


Classroom Stories: Thoughts on Missing the First Day of Class

By Stacy Palen

Establishing a classroom culture of intention (including routing attendance, handing things in on time, showing up promptly, and so on) starts on the very first day. Students take their cues from me: is this a professor who cares about these things or not?

Because of this, I have always avoided missing the first day (or two!) of class.

Unfortunately, the winter American Astronomical Society meeting almost always overlaps with the first week of class at Weber State University. I usually don’t go to the meeting. But this year I had obligations that put me in a bind, and I felt I needed to be at AAS during the first full week of January.

This meant missing the first day of class in all three of my spring semester courses. What to do?

Somewhat hesitantly, I put together an assignment for each class that I broadcast on Canvas the week before. I made an announcement so that students would know they were supposed to do it instead of coming to class, and then hoped for the best. I promised that I would grade this assignment before we met in class for the first time.

It worked out better than I expected.

The Introductory Astronomy assignment had two parts. Part A was a basic list of vocabulary words like “planet,” “planetary nebula,” and “universe,” that students were asked to look up and define in one or two sentences. Part B asked students to read the syllabus and then answer a few questions.

Part A gave me insight into what students know, what they don’t know, and, especially, what they think they know but don’t!

Students believe they know what planets, stars, and solar systems are, so they did not look up those answers but instead just wrote down what was in their head. These definitions were generally incomplete. For example, the definition of “planet” could easily have described an asteroid.

More difficult terms like “planetary nebula,” they actually looked up. The students were more likely to be correct about the topics they didn’t know as well.

That’s interesting.

Part B actually allowed me to skip talking about the syllabus during our first in-person class time, except to answer one or two questions about textbooks and the bookstore. This feels like such an improvement that I may institute this assignment every semester!

The mechanics of the assignment were a little bit tricky.

First, I had to convince Canvas to open the course ahead of the official University start date, which I did in “Settings.” I know I was successful because one student turned the assignment in on the Friday before classes started.

Second, in order to keep my promise to have it graded before the second meeting time, I had to have students hand in the assignment on Canvas.

In previous years, this would have been a show-stopper, because I despised typing in comments on assignments handed in via Canvas. But there is new functionality to write on assignments using a tablet, which makes the grading experience much more like giving feedback on paper.

I did get them almost all graded (except for four!) by the time class started on Wednesday. I felt it was really valuable to me to walk into class already knowing something more about their background than I typically do.

And skipping the syllabus discussion? Priceless.


Classroom Stories: Calendars, Leap Years, and Graphs

By Stacy Palen.

Discussing the calendar can bring a “science and society” learning objective into the astronomy classroom.

Lunar Calendars

Islam, for example, uses a lunar calendar. The resulting gradual drift of holidays and festivals such as Ramadan through the seasons opens discussion not only to the use of calendars, but also to the earliest observed crescent phase that marks the beginning and end of the fasting month.

Asking students to imagine, and then explain, how Ramadan differs when it is celebrated in different seasons, can give students a better appreciation for why seasons and calendars matter. When we discuss the lunar calendar, Muslim students often raise their hands to add stories of Ramadan, such as waiting for the first observation of the crescent moon that signifies the end of the fasting period.

A few years ago, a Muslim student, Kimi, would come to intro astronomy class wearing traditional attire and veil. Kimi was quiet until we reached this discussion of the calendar. She stepped in to talk about the meaning and practice of Ramadan. This talk, in turn, transformed the views of other students, and they welcomed hearing about her experience.

Later in the year, Kimi had some problems in her neighborhood. Her car was broken into, and her door was vandalized. Kimi stayed after class to explain that this was why she was late that day. Three other students waited to walk with her across campus and offer moral support. We do teach more than astronomy in the astronomy classroom.

The Gregorian Calendar

Students find it surprising that the date of a long-ago event does not tell you precisely how many days ago it happened. This is due to the number of days in a year (365.25) not being an integer. A random error occurs because early calendars did not take the fraction of a day into account, so they needed adjusting once in a while. Students are often surprised to hear this.

For example, in 1582, when the calendar changed from Julian to Gregorian, 10 days were deleted: Thursday, October 4 was followed by Friday, October 15! The Gregorian calendar was invented to correct the systematic errors, so that the random adjustments were no longer necessary.

Explaining the Gregorian calendar is cumbersome: every fourth year is a leap year, except if it's a centennial. The only exception to this is if the centennial is divisible by 400. The effect can be difficult to visualize.

800px-Gregoriancalendarleap_solstice.svg

Image created by Wikipedia user BasZoetekouw using Astrolabe data and used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

This graphical representation shows how the date of the summer solstice changes over the course of 400 years. This graph shows that the summer solstice moves 1/4 day later each year, until the fourth year, when it resets to, almost, the original date. As time passes, those almost errors accumulate, until they add up to just about one day after 100 years.

That “just about” error accumulates until it adds up to a full day after 400 years. And then the leap day is skipped.

Asking students to visualize how far the blue line would rise without the leap-year reset helps them understand that the date of the summer solstice would change significantly, by nearly a month, over the course of just one human lifetime. A visual representation of the effect helps students grasp a difficult concept with ease.

Image retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gregoriancalendarleap_solstice.svg


Classroom Stories: Establishing a Common Vocabulary

by Stacy Palen.

Sometimes, you do a thing in class, and you think, “Why did I never do that before?!” That happened to me this semester, when for the first time, I gave my introductory astronomy students a first assignment in vocabulary building.

This was basic, absolutely basic. I gave them a list of astronomical objects. Then, I told them to go to the library, look at an introductory astronomy book, and find a description of each object. The objects included: planet, meteor, comet, star, nebula, galaxy, and so on. 

I asked my students to rewrite each definition in one or two sentences, and then to hand in their definitions in during the second class. I did not give my students anything “tricky.” No words like dwarf planet or energy.

The assignment was a simple census of the Universe: what’s out there, and how can we talk about it?

The assignment was a bit of a desperation move. Often, my students are not prepared for class on day one, but I hate to waste the opportunity to establish a good homework habit by waiting until the second week. This seemed like a nice compromise that would get them engaged with the material, even if they didn’t have their book(s) yet.

Most students did not go to the library (of course). But two of them did, which sort of shocked me. And all of them completed the assignment in its entirety. It took me only a few minutes to grade because every student gave reasonable working definitions of the objects. I was not looking for detail.

But since then, the real magic has happened in classroom discussion.

For many students, it’s been a long time since they thought about space, and they've forgotten a lot of what they knew. For another group, they never learned about these objects to begin with. And for others (the most difficult group), they think they know what these objects are, but they are mistaken.

In Utah, astronomy appears in the 3rd and 6th grade core. Therefore, unless their high school made a special effort to offer an astronomy class, my students may not have talked about space at all since 6th grade. That’s a long time to ask anyone to hold onto unused knowledge.

This semester, I’ve noticed the advantage of our common vocabulary when talking about physical laws. For example, when I talked about orbital motion, I was able to say, “These laws govern the behavior of all kinds of orbits, from planets to comets to stars orbiting the center of the galaxy to extrasolar planets. We will use these laws over and over again.”

And students had an idea, from the census that they took in their vocabulary assignment, how broadly I was applying those laws. The feedback from students -- in the completely non-scientific form of nods -- was more positive than past feedback had been.

Before, I felt that my students were not sufficiently amazed by the universality of physical law. Now that we have a common vocabulary in place, I sense that they better understand my own amazement, and that in turn helps them develop a deeper appreciation for our Universe.