Monday, December 10, 2007

Required Reading: CAE's Winter Reading List

CAE's December 2007 Teaching Strategy is an expanded astro ed research reading list.

For those of you who have not looked at the Center for Astronomy Education site this month, I recommend looking at their December teaching strategy. It's a good reading list of astronomy and physics education research articles. The education theory & practice book How People Learn is also on the list. The articles include Janelle Bailey's recent paper on a stars concept inventory, and the amazing review of astro ed research by Bailey & Slater. All of the articles are required reading. Reading between semesters is a good way to refresh yourself after the burnout that comes from teaching for fifteen weeks (I'm not the only one, right?). It's also a good way to get ideas for the next semester.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Web Videos, Pre-med Students: TPT Dec 2007

The December 2007 issue of The Physics Teacher contains some interesting and relevant pieces for astronomy teachers: the challenges of teaching pre-med students and a great suggestion concerning web videos.

Gerd Kortemeyer's article entitled "The Challenge of Teaching Introductory Physics to Premedical Students" is worthwhile reading for teachers of any intro science course. The articles discusses a study of students in physics courses for non-majors that are populated mainly by pre-med majors. Kortemeyer presents the reasons why pre-med students take physics and discusses the satisfication level that these students have with intro physics.

It probably is not surprising that such students are taking physics so that they can acquire knowledge required to answer questions on the MCAT. These same students would probably benefit from courses in intro physics classes designed specifically for them, with applications to medicine. An analytical physics class, that is heavy in mathematical derivation, may help them in the short term with MCAT questions. However, once pre-med students go into medical practice, they often wish they had learned more physics. A course designed for them could help them to see the applications to their work, and possibly retain that knowledge longer (at least, that is my thinking). Kortemeyer ends the article with an annotated listing of textbooks useful for such courses.

In the Websights section, Ralph McGrew writes about a surprisingly wonderful place to find web videos demonstrating physics: America's Funniest Home Videos. The AFV website has a massive online catalog of their clips, sorted into sections (though the search function is faster for finding a specific clip). I won't re-list all of McGrew's favorites, but I do have to point to my own favorite: Dorm Chair Hit, a painfully funny demonstration of Newton's 3rd Law. Here's one more: Crib Blanket Teamwork. Search through the AFV website, and comment below with your favorites that demonstrate some physics concept. What a cool way to show the physics of everyday life :-)

Cool physics videos on the web are not new. McGrew points to a few other neat videos, such as the hilarious demonstration of a water-bottle jet pack, from a Japanese tv show.

The Wohba blog regularly posted amazing videos, such as the Ruben's Tube demonstration. Of course, I can't mention physics web videos without pointing to my own contest-winning video on insulation.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Resource Post: Lecture Tutorials

Below, I give a review of the lecture-tutorial activities that are becoming popular in astronomy (and to a lesser extent, physics) teaching. Links and bibliographic information are given on the books and associated materials, to help teachers find the tutorial material without having to search all over of the internet. I have also included links to three tutorial activities I have written. If you have classroom tested tutorial activities that you have written, and would like to have them listed here, comment below with a link.

Lecture Tutorials

In the past few decades, one of the clear, reproducible results in in physics and astronomy education is that the traditional lecture format is inadequate in achieving the the highest possible student learning gains (for example, see Hake, R.R., 1998; references listed below).

Better results are obtained when active learning is implemented within the course structure. Rather than lecture-alone, students can be asked to work on processing activities in small groups. Lecture-tutorials are guided sets of questions that lead students through difficult concepts, focusing on those that ellicit the most misconceptions, and force a cognitive confrontation by the end of the activity. The activities often involve students reading debates between fictional peers, and evaluating who is correct, if at all.

Lecture tutorials were first developed in physics and then later in astronomy. Other fields have started to catch on to the idea as well (see geology activities below). For introductory astronomy, the tutorials developed by Arizona's CAPER team are the clear standard. Their research with the tutorials has been implemented in large lecture sections. Students given a pre-test in basic astronomy concepts typically score an average of 30%. The CAPER team has demonstrated that with a traditional lecture format, student acheive a statistically significant (but pedagogically disappointing) post-test average of 50%. With the lecture plus lecture-tutorial approach, the CAPER team has demonstrated that students achieve a post-test average of 70% (Prather, et al, 2003). Clearly, using lecture tutorials gives a superior learning experience than the traditional lecture format.

A very good discussion of how to implement lecture tutorials, given with an appropriate background in learning theory, is presented by Erik Brogt in a recent issue of Astronomy Education Review (Brogt, 2007).

In this resource post, I will list citations for the lecture-tutorial books for students, in both astronomy and physics. I recently corresponded with Karen Kortz of the Community College of Rhode Island, who pointed me to a set of lecture-tutorial activities for geology that she has developed with Jessica Jager Smay of San Jose City College. Links to Kortz's activities are given below.

Lecture Tutorials in Introductory Astronomy

Lecture Tutorials in Introductory Astronomy, 2/E
Authors: Edward Prather, Tim Slater, Jeffrey Adams, and Gina Brissenden
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 2007
ISBN: 0132392267
Description: The revised edition of this book contains thirty-eight ready-to-use activities, covering topics from the night sky to universal expansion (here’s a topic list) This edition adds several activities to the light & spectroscopy section, an especially good unit of this book. The book is designed mainly for one-semester surveys of astronomy that focus on stars and galaxies. There are only a few activities directly related to comparative planetology (however, an intro planets class could make use of Karen Kortz's geology tutorials linked below). The authors have openly expressed that the activity topics reflect their own curriculum preference. I would like to see more activities in stellar evolution and cosmology, but perhaps those will be in a future edition.

Two additional CAPER tutorials, as yet unpublished, in Galactic Rotation Curves and the Greenhouse Effect, are available as locked-downloads to participants of the NASA CAE Teaching Excellence workshops.

Instructor’s Guide for Lecture Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy, 2nd Edition
Author: Ed Prather, Jeff Adams, Daniel Loranz, Gina Brissenden, Timothy Slater, and Larry Watson
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 2008
ISBN: 0321558243
Description: So you've got a copy of the Lecture Tutorials book and you want to use it in your class. How do you effectively implement the activities. What are the common difficulties that students have with the questions? That what this guide is for. It is a protected download from the publisher's website, so you need to get a login from your Addison-Wesley book representative. Do it now! I am always amazed at the number of people who don't know about this resource. The book contains answers to the questions, but more importantly it has pre- and post-questions for the activities in the multiple-choice "clicker" format, ready to use in lecture.

EDIT, 12.17.07: The above link and description has been updated to reflect the availability of the updated instructor's guide.

Astronomy Active Learning In-Class Tutorials
Author: Marvin L. De Jong
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 2006
ISBN: 0805382968
Description: Before the physics and astronomy books from the Prentice Hall division was absorbed into Addison-Wesley (I’m only speaking half facetiously when I say that all academic book publishers will turn into one eventually), Addison-Wesley published this odd little book, as a supplement to Bennett’s Cosmic Perspective text. My general impression is that this title was produced to compete with the CAPER tutorials book when it was part of Prentice Hall. It contains FIFTY activities, which are described by the author as “lecture tutorials”, however I find them to be a higher difficulty level than the CAPER book. The font of the book is small and there is barely any room for students to write in the spaces meant for “explanations.” Many of the tutorials ask for mathematical calculations. Many of the questions are not useful for higher-level processing, because they are just asking for declarative knowledge. That said, I have found several of the activities useful as LAB activities, if adapted properly. One particularly well presented activity is the one on using Cepheid Variables as standard candles. Another good activity is the one on finding the center of the galaxy using the distribution of globular clusters. I do like how De Jong uses real observational data in the activities. If you can get a copy of this book, you too might be able to adapt some of the activities to a workable classroom tutorial or lab.

Tutorials by P.E. Robinson
Year: 2006-2007
Description: To fill in the gaps of the CAPER tutorial book, I have written a few tutorials. Main Sequence Stars is an activity that leads students through the process of a main sequence star becoming a red giant. Early Universe Light is a tutorial that examines the production of the CMB. Interplanetary Travel is an activity on using least-energy orbits to send spacecraft to other planets. Interplanetary Travel is most suited to more advanced groups (it involves a few basic calculations). I give permission to print and copy these tutorials, provided that they are not changed and retain my authorship. If you do use these activities, please give me feedback! They are works in progress, and I am still modifying them after implementing them in the classroom. I am working on other tutorials, and will post them here when I have tested them with students.

Introductory Geology Lecture Tutorials
Author: Karen M. Kortz and Jessica J. Smay
Year: 2007
Description: Geology instructor Karen Kortz has developed a set of thirteen tutorials, modelled after the CAPER activities, for introductory geology. Several of these could help fill the gaps in planetary science in the CAPER book. I have not used these in the classroom, but after reading through them, I think they appear well written and class-ready! If you have used them, comment below with your experiences.

Lecture Tutorials for Physics

Tutorials In Introductory Physics and Homework Package
Authors: Lillian C. McDermott, Peter S. Shaffer, and the Physics Education Group of the University of Washington
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 2002
ISBN: 0130970697
Description: The Physics Education Group at the University of Washington developed a comprehensive set of lecture tutorials for a two-semester sequence in introductory physics. Topics range from kinematics to E&M. The main tutorial book has an accompanying book with homework exercises that can be used to reinforce the tutorial concepts. Several of the activities require the use of some simple equipment, such as kinematic "ticker-tape" for acceleration concepts.

Instructor's Guide (for Tutorials in Introductory Physics)
Author: Lillian C. McDermott
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 2002
ISBN: 0130662445
Description: Like the instructor’s guide to the astronomy tutorials, this book contains sample pre-test and exam questions and information about how to best run the activities.

References Mentioned Above

Prather, E. E., Slater, T. F., Adams, J. P., Bailey, J. M., Jones, L. V., & Dostal, J. A. 2003, "Research on a Lecture-Tutorial Approach to Teaching Introductory Astronomy for Non-Science Majors," Astronomy Education Review, 3(2), 122.

Brogt, Erik. 2007, “A Theoretical Background on a Successful Implementation of Lecture-Tutorials,” Astronomy Education Review, 6(1), 50-58.

Hake, R.R. "Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses ". American Journal of Physics, 66, pg.64-74

Monday, November 26, 2007

Resource Post: The Pedagogy Bookshelf

An annotated list of books useful for pedagogical knowledge in astronomy and physics. This list is biased towards the books that I have read and used. If you know of a useful book that I am leaving out, please comment below.


Several of the books listed in the Astronomy section below are often given (free) to registered participants of the NASA CAE Teaching Excellent Workshops.

Learner-Centered Astronomy Teaching: Strategies for ASTRO 101
Authors: Timothy Slater and Jeffrey Adams
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 2003
ISBN: 0130466301
Description: This little gem of a book should be the first thing on the shelf of a new astronomy teacher. Even experienced astronomy teachers can get something out of it. Need an outline for a good syllabus? It's here. Need to know various ways of setting up a grading system with rubricks? It's here. Need advice on how to manage activities with groups? It's here. My major criticism of the book is that it is too short. It does not delve very deeply into the various difficulties and misconceptions students have with specific topics. Alas, there is no book currently for astronomy that is the analog of Aron's Teaching Introductory Physics book.

Instructor’s Guide for Lecture Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy
Author: Jeff Adams
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 2005
ISBN: 0132272199
Description: So you've got a copy of the Lecture Tutorials book and you want to use it in your class. How do you effectively implement the activities. What are the common difficulties that students have with the questions? That what this guide is for. It is a protected download from the publisher's website, so you need to get a login from your Addison-Wesley book representative. Do it now! I am always amazed at the number of people who don't know about this resource. The book contains answers to the questions, but more importantly it has pre- and post-questions for the activities in the multiple-choice "clicker" format, ready to use in lecture. The major drawback is that the publisher currently only has the guide for the first edition. An updated instructor's guide for the 2nd edition is not available yet.

Peer Instruction for Astronomy
Author: Paul J. Green
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 2003
ISBN: 0130263109
Description: A guidebook that applies Eric Mazur's teaching methods to astronomy. Green explains how to set up "think-pair-share" in the classroom and how to manage groups. The bulk of the book is a collection of clicker-style questions, organized by topic. A good resource, but beware: many of the questions are worded poorly, so before using them you will need to read them carefully from the mindset of a student.

Clickers in the Astronomy Classroom
Author: Douglas Duncan
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 2007
ISBN: 0805396160
Description: Doug Duncan's little book of how to use clickers in astronomy. In it, he discusses the classroom research with the devices, and the pedagogical best practices. Best of all: sets of ready-to-use clicker questions, including questions that are paired with some very cool demonstrations.

Great Ideas for Teaching Astronomy
Author: Stephen Pompea
Publisher: Brookscole
Year: 2000 (3rd Edition)
ISBN: 0534373011
Description: A collection of teaching tips and ideas from many different astro instructors. Some are misses, but quite a few are hits. The tips are like voices from the teaching trenches. These aren't just recommendations from theory, but actual ideas that astro teachers have invented and used in their classes. The collection is replete with analogies to use for various concepts, as well as good demonstration ideas.


Because the concepts of physics overlap so heavily with astronomy (motion, forces, gravity, light, etc), it is very useful for astronomy teachers to learn from the results of physics education research.

Teaching Introductory Physics
Author: Arnold B. Arons
Publisher: Wiley
Year: 1996
ISBN: 978-0-471-13707-8
Description: Arguably, one of the most comprehensive discussions of physics pedagogy. Decades of research results are culled in this volume. Arons sets the book up in topic order, to go with the curriculum of most two-semester intro physics sequences. Nearly every concept, from kinematics to special relativity, is analyzed from the viewpoint of how students approach them. Particular difficulties that students have are presented, and suggestions are given on how to overcome them (sometimes with a surprising demo, sometimes with a carefully posed question). The second half of the book contains challenging homework problems that are designed to get students to confront conceptual issues.

Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual
Author: Eric Mazur
Publisher: Addison-Wesley
Year: 1997
ISBN: 0135654416
Description: Mazur's ConcepTest approach to teaching physics is presented here. Peer Instruction utilizes the "think-pair-share" question methodology, and Mazur gives advice on how to implement it. This book contains many good resources, including a large collection of questions, homework quizzes, Force and Mechanics Inventory surveys, and the ConcepTests.

Physics by Inquiry, Volumes I & II
Author: L.C. McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington
Publisher: Wiley
Year: 1996
ISBN: 0471548707
Description: For pre-service and in-service science teachers, I cannot think of a better curriculum to work through than Physics by Inquiry. Topics in this series include basic physical measurement, light & color, electric circuits, geometric optics, magnetism and electromagnets, thermodynamics, and naked-eye astronomy. The curriculum is completely learner-centered in that students use observations and experiments to develop mature models of nature on their own, without lectures. Homework problems provided at the end of each section are essential, rigorous and challenging, without being laden with math.


Knowing specific pedagogical techniques for astronomy is important, but it is also important to know general principles of learning theory. Especially important for college instructors is to know how students have developed their ideas before getting to college. Below I have listed a few books that I have used to learn about the psychology of learning and general teaching practices.

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
Author: National Research Council
Year: 2000
ISBN: 0309070368
Description: This book contains a wealth of research-results on learning theory, with an equal amount of information on putting those results into classroom practice. The book is available in its entirety online. I consider this required reading.

Learning and Instruction, 2/E
Author: Richard E. Mayer
Publisher: Prentice Hall
Year: 2007
ISBN: 013170771X
Description: A systematic review of learning theory research. The book covers how people learn various subjects (reading, writing, math, history). There is an especially good section on science learning, with many examples from physics education. The second half of the book covers research regarding classroom techniques and practices, such as using psychology to write better homework assignments and explanations, and priming student motivation.

Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers
Authors: Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
Year: 1993
ISBN: 1555425003
Description: The bible of assessment tools. Everything from "Muddiest Point" to Concept Maps. Contains implementation examples, advice on how to analyze the results of assessments, and the pros and cons of each technique.

McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers
Authors: Wilbert McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Year: 2005
ISBN: 0618515569
Description: A good resource for teachers, mainly because it can help define much of the terminology that education researchers use. It also contains a lot of practical advice for teaching college. I find the book a little dated and a somewhat bland read. This doesn't mean it isn't worth taking a look at, though.

The Astronomy Education Research Charter

Astronomy education researchers met at a symposium in September and decided to write a charter for the astro ed research community, which will be published and shared with colleagues in academia, professional societies, funding agencies, etc.

Astronomy Education Review has a summary of the symposium on their site, with many good recommendations and thoughts. The charter is now on a wiki page hosted by the AAVSO, and can be edited publicly.

The charter is in its infancy. It has a small, but growing, recommendation section. A good introduction is given. Supplemental sections (introduction to the field of astro ed research, message to funding agencies, suggestions for future research projects) have not been fleshed out.

I recommend reading the charter and contributing to it. So far, only a few people seem to have accessed it and edited it.

I just added my own edit to the document, recommending that astronomy departments develop and offer courses in astronomy education: a course for graduate students (beyond TA training) and a course for pre-service teachers. Both populations need more than just an overview of introductory astronomy. They need specific pedagogical training in how students learn science and astronomy. They need to know what problems and misconceptions students have with astronomy. A pre-service secondary ed teacher taking a general intro course will not get this information. Therefore, I think the community should recommend that astronomy departments offer courses covering these ideas.

I plan to post further ideas for future research projects in astronomy education.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Teaching Astronomy Blog: Introduction

This blog exists to post about and discuss current research and ideas in science education, particularly as they apply to astronomy and physics.  My name is Paul Robinson and I am a community college teacher.  My primary instructional charge (and interest) is Introductory Astronomy, so that will be the focus of this blog.  However, I have deep interests in physics and general science education, as well as the teaching of critical and skeptical thinking, so these topics will probably be discussed as well.

I enjoy hunting for teaching resources and reading educational research.  I have had more than one friend ask me for a list of resources for beginning astronomy/physics teachers, and I have been told by them more than once that I should post my collected resources on the web.  Part of this blog will be to generate such collections, so that beginning teachers (who find this blog) will not have to spend valuable time locating resources.

I will attempt to post on a regular basis, commenting on recent articles from various journals, giving citations, and perhaps discussing the implications of research results.  

What this blog will NOT contain is postings of current events in astronomy, or links to popular media articles on astronomy.  There are many good blogs that already do this.  If a popular media article discusses astronomy/physics education, then I may post about it.

Readers are encouraged to send me links and citations to relevant resources and books.  Mail should be addressed to:  robinson DOT spam AT gmail DOT com

I have my own points of view on teaching and education, many of which will manifest in this blog.  Some of these views are:  
  • It is possible for people to become better teachers, through learning of their own.
  • Traditional lecturing is the least effective way to encourage students to learn science (and pretty much anything else).  Higher learning gains are encouraged through an active-learning curriculum. (see Prather, et al 2004, in Astronomy Education Review)
  • The fact that you have expertise in astronomy or physics doesn't mean that you can teach it effectively.  In fact, without classroom training, your expertise will probably hinder your effectiveness as a teacher. (see Experts and Teaching, in How People Learn by the National Research Council)
  • Good teaching requires:  (1) content knowledge, which allows a teacher to access the concept and mechanics of field.  (2) pedagogical knowledge, which gives a teacher insight into the common difficulties and misconceptions students have with a field.  (3)  assessment knowledge, which allows a teacher to design and interpret appropriate tests of student understanding. (see chapter 7 of How People Learn)
That's enough of an introduction.  Come back regularly, link to the blog, and tell your teacher-friends about it. :-)