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 http://www.uwyo.edu/caper, drop us an email at caperteam@gmail.com 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, http://www.uwyo.edu/caper, caperteam@gmail.com, 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. http://aer.noao.edu/cgi-bin/article.pl?id=64.

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.

caperteam@gmail.com, December 22, 2009

1 comment:

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