Wednesday, September 15, 2010

UVA Astro Educ. Team needs your online support by daily e-voting in Sept.

Founded in 2009, Dark Skies Bright Kids ( is an astronomy outreach group based at the University of Virginia whose core mission is to enhance science education for elementary school students. We seek to foster the natural curiosity of children by helping them to explore the Universe in a social setting with fun, hands-on activities. For one of those activities, one of our volunteers developed several pieces of incredible astronomical artwork with English and Spanish titles. It was so successful and fun that we did not want them to just sit and collect dust... That was the beginning of "Snapshots of the Universe," a bilingual (English and Spanish) art book on astronomy. The book was drawn, written, and put together by the Dark Skies, Bright Kids volunteers with the aim of reaching a wide audience of elementary school children. Preview copies were distributed to astronomers and educators at the Winter 2010 American Astronomical Society meeting, and the first true edition of the book is in its final stages of production. While we plan to make a digital version of the book available online, nothing beats getting publication-quality copies of the book into the hands of deserving kids.

To do this, we need your support! For our first edition, we have applied for a $25K Pepsi Refresh grant, with which we will publish and distribute real paper copies to **every public 3rd grade classroom and elementary school library in the state of Virginia ** .

To win this grant, we need you to vote **every day** in September by either logging in online ( or texting 102189 to Pepsi (73774). And as we live in the age of social networking, we kindly ask you to spread the word on this project.

Thank you for your support.

> Rachael Beaton
> Jefferson Foundation Graduate Fellow
> Department of Astronomy
> University of Virginia


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Solar System Lecture Tutorials for Intro Astronomy

A new collection of tutorials by Jessica Smay and Karen Kortz helps to flesh out planetary topics.

I am recently returned from Boulder, Colorado where I attended Cosmos in the Classroom 2010, a conference on astronomy education held every three years and hosted by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. I'll be writing a few posts about the meeting, but I'll start with telling you about an exciting new resource for Astro 101 instructors.

Lecture tutorials have become one of the standard tools for reformed teaching in Physics 101 and Astro 101. I have been using them in my own courses for over five years. However, the original Lecture-Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy by Prather et. al. contains a dearth of activities related to the solar system and comparative planetology. Jessica Smay, from the Community College of Rhode Island, and Karen Kortz, from San Jose City College, collaborated to develop a tutorial book with geoscience topics, Lecture Tutorials for Introductory Geoscience. Now, they have a new suite of tutorials focused on the solar system. These haven't been collected into a book yet, but they are available on the web at

At Cosmos in the Classroom, Jessica was on hand to present a poster about the tutorial collection and introduce them to the astro 101 community.

Here's the topics in the collection:
1. Earth's Tectonic Plate Boundaries
2. Earth's Surface Features
3. Auroras
4. The Moon's Crater History
5. The Moon's Surface: Order of Events
6. Planetary Positions
7. Terrestrial Planets vs. Jovian Planets
8. Rock Types on Other Planets
9. Planet Surface Features
10. Volcanoes on Other Planets
11. Mars Climate Change
12. Other Moons Surface Processes
13. Jovian Planets
14. Space Objects
15. Asteroid Impacts
16. Pluto
17. Missions

Anyone teaching a semester of planetary astronomy at the intro level could easily combine these topics with existing tutorials to fill an entire course. Jessica and Karen even have a nice webpage describing how to use and write tutorials for your own class.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Astro 101 Posters from AAS 2010 Washington, D.C.

At the American Astronomical Society meeting recently held in Washington, D.C., I was pleased to attend four astronomy education presentation sessions (not including all the public outreach and new media sessions!) and several poster sessions related to astro 101 teaching. I can remember going to AAS meetings not so long ago where education and education research was held in low regard. Perhaps it still is by some of the general membership, but it is nice to have these presentation and poster sessions set aside for education.

I contacted the poster presenters of Astro 101-related material from the meeting and asked them to send in their poster files. They have been trickling in, so I wanted to get a blog post up sooner than later. Check back to this post as more will be added as they are sent to me.

If you had an Astro 101-related poster at AAS and it isn't listed below, please send it in!

Measuring Science Literacy in College Undergraduates - Chris David Impey, S. R. Buxner, J. Antonellis, C. King, E. Johnson, CATS

Students' Reasoning Difficulties in Cosmology -
Colin Scott Wallace, E. E. Prather, D. Duncan, CATS

The CAE/CATS Guest Moderator Program: Fostering Better Astronomy Education Through Professional Discussions -
John J. Feldmeier, G. Brissenden, P. E. Robinson, J. J. Sudol, CATS

Twenty-Year Survey of Scientific Literacy and Attitudes Toward Science: Students’ Acceptance of Astrology and Pseudoscience -
Hannah R. Sugarman, C. Impey, S. Buxner, J. Antonellis

Exoplanet Peer-Learning Exercises for Introductory Astronomy Courses -
John P. Wisniewski, A. Larson

HALLEY: A 3D Orbital Integration and Visualization Software Package for Undergraduate Applications -
Darren M. Williams, C. Palma, H. R. Williams

Is There a "Back" of the Room When the Teacher is in the Middle? -
Julia M. Kregenow, M. Rogers

No Budget for Labs: Implementing Laboratory-style Assignments in a Traditional Introductory Astronomy Course -
Lisa M. Will

Learning about Parallax and Proper Motion by Searching for Binary Stars -
Catherine A. Pilachowski, R. Hamper, F. Morris

Exploring Metacognitive Visual Literacy Tasks for Teaching Astronomy -
Tim F. Slater, S. Slater, W. Dwyer

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Scott Miller's Astro 101 Online Video Demos

Scott Miller, of Sam Houston State University, has a set of video demonstrations for astro 101 that are freely available on the web.

At the recent AAS meeting in Washington, D.C., I attended all of the astro 101 education sessions. It is no surprise that web content is being used widely in astro 101 classes, from research-based education to classes and conferences within Second Life. Scott Miller, from Sam Houston State University, gave a presentation about the use of video demonstrations within the online sections of astronomy that he teaches.

Scott's videos are freely available on You Tube and iTunes. The videos cover many of the key elements from an astro 101 class. They feature Scott and his "assistant" Stephen. The Penn & Teller-style setup leads to predictably cheesy gags and punchlines, but the videos are sure to appeal to some of your students. I have watched about half of them at this point, and despite the corny humor, I found the production values to be surprisingly good. The videos aren't just another talking head in a living room explaining a concept. You know the lecture tutorial on luminosity, temperature and size? There is a video where Scott and Stephen actually use hot plates and tea kettles to demonstrate those concepts.

Scott's AAS presentation was mainly focused on the comparison between online students using the videos and in-class students who didn't use the videos. I wonder how in-class students who also watched the videos would do compared to those other groups?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Converting Non-Believers to Cosmology?

At the January 2010 AAS meeting, Western Kentucky’s Richard Gelderman
presented the fascinating results of a study where his team took a
group of teachers to the newly constructed and so far well-attended
Creation Museum near Cincinnati (REF 1, 2). He reported that after
attending a tour, he was disappointed to find that, although the
participating science teachers enthusiastically believed a scientific
story of creation more than a faith-based story presented by the
museum, these teachers could not sufficiently describe the scientific
evidence as to why they believed the scientific story over the
faith-based story. You can imagine that this generated considerable
discussion among the meeting attendees, particularly in regards to
whether or not science constitutes a belief system.

Upon reflection about how to better teach future teachers in our
ASTRO 101 courses, it occurs to me that there is a tremendous
difference between helping students learn WHY WE BELIEVE the
scientific story and HOW CAN WE KNOW, SCIENTIFICALLY. As professors,
we can easily teach our students to recite the evidence for biological
evolution and even cosmology simply by providing the stories to them
and demanding them to eloquently regurgitate it back on an exam. This
wouldn’t take too much effort on anyone’s part, albeit annoying
perhaps. And, students might even be able to remember the details of
their memorized stories years down the road, perhaps even to go on to
teach these stories to their children.

Yet, this approach to asking students to memorize a list of
evidence and the story of how we know something suffers from several
weaknesses. First, and most obvious, our students might not remember
the evidence down the road, as we tend to forget things that have been
memorized for purposes of a test. Second, memorized stories can morph
over time, evolving into something different over time. Third, Harry
Shipman and colleagues have written extensively about the nature of
beliefs and how they are well poised to interfere with students’
success in learning astronomy (REF 3). But, perhaps most important for
my nickel, thinking about science as a series of stories asks students
to CHOOSE between scientific-based stories and faith-based stories.
Certainly, as scientists, most of think our stories are more right
because they are based on systemically collected and community vetted
scientific evidence. But, for non-scientists, I submit that this
seeming dichotomy is more about making a choice than coming to an
evidence-based conclusion. To push this notion a little bit farther,
it seems to me that for students facing a choice between stories, the
possibility of some eternal damnation due to non-belief could be
considered to be more detrimental than simply failing a science
course, and could influence their apparent choice.

A potentially more powerful approach to thinking about helping
students better understand emotionally-vectored topics is to consider
HOW CAN WE KNOW rather than WHY WE KNOW (REF 4). In other words,
imagine an assignment where students were tasked to list, IF YOU WERE
WHAT EVIDENCE WOULD YOU ACCEPT? In other words, what about asking
students to propose what experiments they would conduct and what
variables they would need to know to develop a predictive mechanism
for cosmological evolution. I suspect that students might be able to,
using our scientific vernacular instead of theirs, galactic recession.
I doubt that students would spontaneously come up with neither
lithium abundance nor cosmic microwave background. However, it seems
to me that if students have struggled with the question, and even own
a little of the galactic recession, they might be more open to listen
to lithium abundance and CMB evidence. Unless we simply give students
the list of evidence before they have personally struggled to think
about what might be acceptable evidence, students are just as likely
to reject the scientific story as they are the faith-based story.
I propose that a focus on HOW CAN WE KNOW instead of WHY WE KNOW
might look very different across student groups. Consider that
students with different motivations, ethnic backgrounds, experience in
science, and perhaps even gender, might intellectually engage with HOW
CAN WE KNOW differently and emphasize different evidence. I really
don’t know how that might turn out. However, what I can be sure of is
that we wouldn’t be preaching a science story versus a faith-based
story introducing a dichotomy that might interfere with astronomers
reaching their teaching goals.

IMHO, Tim Slater,, University of Wyoming
– Cognition in Astronomy, Physics & Earth sciences Research CAPER
1. Gelderman, Richard (2010) Visiting the Creation Museum with
Teachers: Assessing Obstacles to Learning , presentation at American
Astronomical Society, AAS Meeting #215, #366.07, Washington, DC,
January 6, 2010, Abstract found online at:
2. Creation Museum’s web site is :
3. Brickhouse, N, Dager, Z, Letts, W. & Shipman, Harry (2002) Evidence
and Warrants for Beliefs in a College Astronomy Course, Science and
Education, 11(6).
4. Some of my thinking has been influenced by Oliver, Steve J. (2007),
Independent learning, Intellectual Independence and Reform,
Proceedings of Science at the Crossroads Conference, found online at:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hosting a Student-Led ASTRO 101 Mini-Science Conference


A commonly assigned task for college courses is an end-of-term project or term paper. The tacit goal for such an assignment surrounds encouraging students to take a closer look at a particular aspect of one of the course topics and develop a deeper and more thorough understanding of it. At first glance, this seems to be a reasonable pedagogical strategy. Yet, when we talk to faculty teaching the introductory astronomy courses to non-science majoring students who are using this approach, we often encounter considerable frustration and regret from faculty about making such an assignment. Faculty tell us that they find all too often that their students’ essays fall far short of their expectations. Most commonly, faculty report that their students most frequently submit superficial summaries of disconnected facts gleaned, if not blatantly copied, from websites, news media stories, or textbooks. And, then there is the time consuming and sometimes delicate nature of grading essays or projects. Students too seem to generally dislike such assignments, often pushing faculty for precise requirements such as word-counts, immutable rules for number and type of allowed references, and requests for re-grading or relaxed deadlines Certainly there are strategies available to mitigate these issues [REF 1-3], but one wonders if all the effort is really worth it.

For an introductory science survey course, such as ASTRO 101, a commonly agreed upon goal is that students will learn something about the nature of science [REF 4-5]. To be sure, defining precisely what “something about the nature of science” actually means is open to debate. For our purposes, we have found it fruitful to look to National Academy of Science [REF 6] who frames students’ proficiency in science in four dimensions: (i) know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world; (ii) generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations; (iii) understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and (iv) participate productively in scientific practices and discourse. Articulating science proficiency in this way provides robust guidance to ASTRO 101 instructors about what sorts of assignments students should engage in as part of their pathway to learning science.

We elected to radically alter the commonly used end-of-term essay assignment and instead host a student-lead mini-science conference. At the beginning of the course, students were assigned the task of completing a scientific investigation of their choosing and create an illustrated poster presentation, much like is done at professional science conferences. Thus was born the ASTRO 101 MINI-SCIENCE CONFERENCE. Students were told they could work individually or in groups of three and that they could study anything they wished as long as it was related to the science theme of the course. Using this strategy, it was our intention to address the NAS newly proposed dimensions of science proficiency.

Our first attempt resulted in a mix of both elation and disappointment. On one hand, students made aesthetically beautiful poster presentations and reported on the end-of-term course evaluations that this type of assignment benefited them in their learning science and that they greatly preferred this type of assignment over an essay. On the other hand, our analysis of the substance of most of the poster presentations that they were little more than illustrated book-reports, superficial in substance, and not really being of more merit than the previously assigned term paper essays. In short, their poster presentations, although colorful, fell far short of our expectations.

In retrospect, we now see that we should have expected to get exactly what we got before with essay assignments. All we had done was change the surface features of the assignment, which isn’t such a radical change at all. We realized that we were not changing the learning process that students needed. If we had wanted students to be better at reading and summarizing science in the form of essays or poster presentations, we would have needed to carefully structure (or scaffold) their learning experiences so that they had multiple engagements with science journalism, starting first with easy tasks and progressing to more complicated tasks.

If students need to have repeated and scaffolded experiences with science text, media, and websites, what might that look like? In the course of a 16-week semester, we judge that there is only time for students to do five assignments in preparation for ramping up to their end-of-term final poster presentation. We designed the following set of experiences:

(1) select an article and describe why it is directly relevant;

(2) write a brief summary of an article, different than the first article you selected;

(3) discern between two articles given to you by your instructor which one is scientifically-based and which one is pseudo-science or junk science;

(4) write a personal reaction to an article or your choosing you haven’t read before; and finally

(5) create an hypothetical 200-300 word news release/article for a new hypothetical scientific discovery.

We anticipated a two week spacing of each assignment starting at week number one so that we would have sufficient time to students them feedback before they started on their end-of-term poster presentations. One appealing aspect of this approach is that students are engaging with at least five different articles or source materials, with specific and narrowly defined tasks to attend to with each article, each increasing in intellectual complexity.

The advantage of this approach is that it highly structures the teaching of students to successfully engage in science journalism, in a critical way. Such a laudable goal is commonly stated by science faculty as being widespread and seems worthy of considerable effort and attention [REF 4]. And, indeed, students are able to create really insightful and interesting poster presentations – illustrated “book reports” if you will – through these scaffolded learning experiences. However, this was not actually our goal; our goal was to bring the NAS frameworks of science proficiency to life.

What we realized is that although students could become more adept at “relating” the story and results of science in writing and through illustration by critically engaging in it, but they couldn’t actually demonstrate the ability to DO science. We decided we needed another dramatically approach that more closely matched our goals.

Randy Bell [REF 7] provides a straightforward framework identifying students as being engaged in scientific inquiry: (1) students are engaging in authentic scientific questions; (2) students are designing strategies to pursue evidence; and (3) students are defending conclusions based on collected data. In order to accomplish this, we needed a structure in place to provide multiple experiences for students where they could engage in each of these.

We have adopted an innovative approach we call BACKWARDS FADED SCAFFOLDING [REF 8-9]. In this approach, we have students repeatedly engage in highly structured inquiry cycles. We first provide students with fully supported tour through Bell’s three phases of inquiry. As a second step, we provide students with a second inquiry experience, but this time students create their own conclusion based on the question, procedure, and evidence we provide. They are explicitly instructed to use as a model how the evidence resulted in a conclusion during their first inquiry experience. As a next step, we provide students with a third inquiry question and procedure, but ask them to collect the evidence and use their data to create an evidence-based conclusion. Following this same patter, we slowly and methodically re-engage students in repeated inquires until they are fully prepared, and experienced enough, to pose their own scientific inquiry questions.

Our initial research data obtained in studying the effectiveness of this approach suggests students are significantly increasing their content knowledge of astronomy, as measured by the Test Of Astronomy STandards (TOAST) and significantly increasing their knowledge of scientific inquiry, as measured by the Views on Scientific Inquiry (VOSI). It is our judgment that this approach is more tightly aligned with the NAS scientific proficiencies for students and if the early results hold up for repeated measures, we believe we are making iterative and demonstrable progress toward bringing the NAS frameworks to the learning environment.

If you would like to see early versions of the BACKWARDS FADED SCAFFOLDING inquiries for astronomy which are soon to be published by WHFreeman, check our out CAPER Team website at, drop us an email at or find us on your choice of Facebook, Twitter, Xanga, Tumblr, Posterous, or YouTube.

Some thoughts that might be helpful from the CAPER Team,
Tim Slater, Stephanie Slater, Dan Lyons, Mark Reiser, William Dwyer, and Dave Cook, University of Wyoming – Cognition in Astronomy, Physics & Earth sciences Research (CAPER) Team,,, December 22, 2009


1. Slater, T.F., and Adams, J.P., 2004, Learner-Centered Astronomy Teaching, Newark, NJ, Prentice Hall Publishing Company.

2. Slater, T. F., 2005, Save Time With a High Performance Grading System. The Physics Teacher 43(6), 396-397.

3. Slater, T. F. 1997, The Effectiveness of Portfolio Assessments in Science. Journal of College Science Teaching, 26(5), 315-318.

4. Slater, T.F., Adams, J.P., Brissenden, G., Duncan, D., 2001, What Topics Are Taught In Introductory Astronomy Courses? The Physics Teacher, 39(1), 52-55.

5. Partridge, B. & Greenstein, G., 2004, Goals for "Astro 101": Report on workshops for department leaders, Astronomy Education Review, v. 2, p. 46.

6. National Academy of Sciences, 2005, Taking Science to School, National Academy Press

7. Bell, R.L., Smetana, L., and Binns, I., Simplifying inquiry instruction, The Science Teacher, October 2005, p. 30-33.

8. Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F., and Shaner, A. 2008. Impact of Backwards Faded Scaffolding in an Astronomy Course for Pre-service Elementary Teachers based on Inquiry. Journal of Geoscience Education, 56(5).

9. Slater, SJ, Slater, TF, & Lyons, D., 2010, Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry, WHFreeman Publishing, ISBN: 1429258608., December 22, 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Time Management for Teaching Faculty

At the November 2009 AAPT/APS New Faculty Workshop for physics and astronomy 
professors, Brian Lane accepted Tim Slater's challenge about turning off 
Outlook Email for one hour each day.

It seemed to really make a difference, 
so, out of curiosity, Brian kept track of the number of e-mails he sent and 
received each day for a week. The results are very interesting. He has 
posted the data & some initial analysis at his blog at 
Check it out!

Posted via email from Tim's posterous