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.

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.