Where science and tech meet creativity.

Currently I’m sitting in the opening session of the ASP’s Cosmos in the Classroom. This is a much smaller and younger conference than the AAPT meeting from earlier this week. Looking around this room of people with mostly non-gray hair, I see a lot of old friends, and looking through the program I see a lot of things I’m really interested in attending.

Andrew Fraknoi is going through the introductory announcements. He said one thing that really caught my attention: (loosely paraphrasing) “This is a friendly group. We’re not like a little science conference on AGN or something. Go talk to two people you don’t know. We’re friendly.” This little comment really struck home for me. The first Cosmos in the Classroom I attended was in 2000 in Pasadena. That summer I attended Cosmos and also a little science conference on a subfield of extragalactic astronomy that shall remain nameless. At the science conference I wandered lost, knowing no one. I even had one tall theorist get in my personal space and tell me my observations were wrong because they didn’t match his theory. He said this loudly. From a short distance. And this experience made me ask if this was what I wanted to experience for the rest of my life. A few weeks later I went to Cosmos and whenever I made a vague attempt to wander lost someone grabbed me, talked to me, and included me. That meeting is where I first met several people whom I continue to hang out with at meetings, including several people who have had a very positive influence on my career. This is a friendly group, a nurturing group, and a group that just wants to help everyone at this conference be better at everything we do in the classroom.

This mornings plenary speaker is Ed Prather, one of the bad boys of astro ed. He challenges and he pushes, forcing us as a community to think of education as a complex problem that requires rigorous investigation if we are going to move forward and more effectively teach in ways that are tested and known to work. As instructors, we don’t have to individually create the best curriculum every semester. There are excellent materials already out there, free for us to use.

He made a few really good points – we can instill words without instilling meaning. I can stand in front of my class and say “Today we’re going to talk about Gobbellygook. Gobbellygook is important because of fickle and factoidal snozzlefar…” I can plaster together a lot of meaningless words with understandable connection words, and people will thinking they are learning. But they aren’t. As Prather puts it, “Teaching is not Telling.” We need to find ways as educators to engage the students in the information such that they understand the concepts behind the words (and perhaps, in my mind, the concepts are more important than the proper nouns we attach to them).

In addressing our students intellectual needs, we have to respect our students built in tool set. For instance, the hot stove / fire / curling iron / BBQ / etc have taught us that close means more, we don’t see things when they are blocked, and other such day to day things. In trying to teach the seasons (which are caused by light coming in at a larger angle – which means fewer photons per square foot – in winter than in summer), we need to know that the world has already taught them that hotter should, really it should, mean closer or farther. So break down their built in (and in this came wrong) understand, we have to get them talking, interacting with, and experimenting with ideas (in the case of seasons, shine a 100 W Desk light straight onto a piece of paper you are touching on the back and at a steep angle onto the same piece of paper.)

This is active learning: “Active learning is when students take active responsibility for participating in and monitoring their own learning.” What students do matter. (Instructors are mediators not the center) We can’t lecture at them, we have to engage them in questions, thinking, and then answering.

One of the neatest results he showed was a graph showing pretest, post-lecture tests and post tutorial tests (tutorials are hands on activity sessions). At the pre-test stage there is a binomial distribution, with students clumping into science knowing and science oblivious. At the pretest stage the clumps answer 50ish and 10ish percent of the questions right. After lecture, everyone shows improvement, and the science oblivious can roughly halve the separation in their scores and the other groups scores – but their is still a gap. After the tutorials, both groups improved and both groups could answer 76% of the questions. This graph shows that everyone improves and the gaps created by preknowledge can be erased through tutorials, allowing everyone to leave the classroom on even footing.

He ended his talk by encouraging all of us to contribute data to a study on how pre- and post- testing scores are effected by our classroom teaching methods. He wants us to be honest researchers and report what we do in our teaching and then use consistent, cross community pre- and post- testing. Through our combined efforts, perhaps we can define what works so that tomorrows students can learn and love to learn.