Current Affairs

JWST In the Classroom!

We are so lucky to have a spiffy new telescope that has captured the public imagination over the summer! 

I used the first group of five images (one is really a spectrum, but for simplicity, I’ll refer to them all as images here!) to introduce the course to my Astro101 students this semester, and it was a hit!  Many of them had heard about the images over the summer, and a few had seen them.  But most of them, while they might have understood a particular image, hadn’t put the grouping together to ‘see the bigger picture’, which is that these five images span the history of the universe from shortly after it began to now.

I presented them in this order:

SMACS 0723 (the Webb Deep Field) I used this image to introduce the concept of the Universe as a whole object of a certain age, which has an observable size limited by that age.  I introduced a number of questions that I know my students would have, and promised to answer them once they’ve learned a few more things along the way…

Stephan’s Quintet This visual grouping of five galaxies includes a number of the signatures of interactions between galaxies, such as starburst regions and tidal tails. It’s a handy image to show to introduce the idea that the universe is not static, that even galaxies evolve over time.

Carina Nebula A nearby star-forming region starts to bring the discussion closer to home in both space and time. I’m often bemused to find that student do not know that stars are not eternal. This is a great image to show to talk about how stars form, and how we build that story from pictures like these.

Southern Ring Nebula  Stars are “born”, and they also “die”. When they die, they enrich the galaxy with the elements that form new stars, new planets, and sometimes people.

WASP-96 b I found a nice segue from the Southern Ring Nebula (all about elements in the galaxy) to detecting those elements using a spectrum like this one! Later in the course, they will find out more about how to read such an image, but for now it’s enough to be absolutely staggered that it’s possible to know that there is water in the atmosphere of a planet that orbits another star!

I’ll give a bit more information and background on these images in the next few blog posts, but presenting them on Day One, as a sort of “movie trailer” for the course turned out to be a great way to inspire students to ask questions, get talking, and be motivated to continue on.

I finished with a sketching activity which I have picked up and modified from a workshop I attended years ago. I show the students the image, and then have them sketch it 3 times: once in 15 seconds, once in 30 seconds, and once in three minutes.  By the third time they sketch the object, they are beginning to see things that they didn’t see in the first few seconds.  This emphasizes that sometimes they just need to slow down to understand or appreciate the material—a lesson I am always trying to teach! 

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.

Posters Celebrating Women in STEM


By Stacy Palen

This set of nifty (free!) posters came through my inbox over the summer. We printed some of them to hang around the Physics Department, and the College of Science more generally.

In addition to raising awareness of the contribution of women, they raise awareness of the contribution of other marginalized groups as well.

Take a look!