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]

Reaching every student in your General Education class

Stacy Palen
Image Credit: Zac Williams

I know just how difficult it can be to stand in front of a large classroom of diverse students — most there just to fulfill a credit requirement—and wonder how you will facilitate their learning. My college, Weber State University in Utah, is an open enrollment institution that provides accessible educational opportunities and high-quality degrees to the students seeking them. What that means for my classroom is that I usually have students at all different levels of experience and all kinds of backgrounds.  

As an author on W. W. Norton’s astronomy textbooks Understanding Our Universe, 21st Century Astronomy, and Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy, I’ve been intentional about bringing flexible materials to the book and resource packages that will serve all types of learners. In the book franchise and in my own classroom, I strive to engage and reach every student.  

When I teach, I’ve adopted a multimodal approach that comes from observing how students learn the content and recognizing the attitudes and skills we want them to carry away from general education classes. One of the most important observations that I’ve made is that different students learn different material differently.  

For example, you can have any two students sitting next to each other; one of them might learn best just by reading, and the other might learn the very same material better by doing something or carrying out an experiment. Conversely, the first student might need to learn a different subject by experimenting while the second student might need to learn it by reading. This is not, in my experience, an issue about coherent learning styles. It’s not that some students learn by seeing and some students learn by doing. It’s usually a matter of experience or background in related topics.  

Because my students come from such a wide range of backgrounds and levels, what resonates most with them will vary, whether it’s seeing, hearing, reading, doing, moving their bodies, or touching. There is no accurate way to predict what instructional method will work best — it just depends on where they are in their education and what they already know when they walk in the door. With this in mind, I’ve tried to incorporate as many different types of teaching approaches as possible into my classroom and homework materials. These are carried into the books and resources that I publish for astronomy, but the idea can be carried into other general education courses, too.  

This idea of including many different instructional methods may be overwhelming for some instructors, but the point is not to use every method every single time, instead you mix and match methods for the students who are sitting in front of you. This means being dynamic and flexible in response to the unique makeup of your class from semester to semester.   

For example, when astronomy instructors are teaching about center of mass, students might get a lecture where they are likely to see and hear about center of mass. From there, they might get a chance to DO something — perhaps a hands-on activity from a workbook or engaging with a simulation. Maybe they will access a video or interactive online. In this phase, it is likely that they will ask a lot of “what if” questions. From there, they might use an online homework system (like Norton’s Smartwork) that has consistent vocabulary and visualizations from the textbook related to center of mass to strengthen their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. They could do some scenario solving, where they try to extrapolate what kinds of systems they are looking at from different kinds of graphs.   

I will also present my students with metaphors from daily life so that they can get a clearer idea about what’s going on — even if they don’t fully understand it — in the context of what they already understand. In this example for center of mass, I’ll show a picture of a young girl being spun around by her father who is holding her hands and, thus, lifting her feet off the ground. I’ll then take my students outside and have them hold hands and spin around. In this real-life mini experiment, they can imagine what it would be like if one of them was much smaller. Soon enough, they’re applying what they’ve learned about center of mass and internalizing what it means in the context of astronomy.  

The point is not just that they correctly answer the question about center of mass and pass the class. The point is that they understand how astronomy (or whatever subject you’re teaching) relates to their lives and gives them an appreciation for the discipline that they might have otherwise skipped. In my opinion, the only way to accomplish that is by using as many different approaches as possible. The lecture-study-test model that dominated education for so many years leaves many students behind, lacking in confidence, and struggling to retain important information. The only way to truly reach every student is to teach the information in a way that they can understand.  

-Stacy Palen

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!