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: