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Venus in August 2018 August 1, 2018

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro, Urban Observing.
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Everyone else may be talking about Mars, but don’t miss your chance to check out Venus this month!


The orbits of Earth, Venus, and Mercury about the Sun, with 16º elongation and maximum eastern and western elongation shown.
The maximum elongations for Venus are shown with the dashed lines, and those for Mercury are shown with the dotted lines.

Venus orbits closer to the Sun than we do. That means from our point of view, it never gets very far from the Sun. When it is farthest in the sky from the Sun, we call it greatest elongation. On August 18, Venus will be at greatest eastern elongation, and it’ll be a little over 45º east of the Sun. That means it’ll be easy to see in the western sky for at least an hour after sunset.



Additionally, Venus will be headed for a crescent phase, which brings it closer to us, so it’ll be getting bigger and brighter. It’ll actually be at it’s brightest near the end of September.



Because of the angle of the ecliptic, it sets a lot sooner in September. Here are a couple maps showing the ecliptic from SE Michigan (or anywhere between 40 – 50º N latitude) on August 1st and 30th, both 1 hour after sunset. You can see the ecliptic moves southward, which means anything on the ecliptic will set earlier in the northern hemisphere.

W (west) is at the center bottom and NW near the bottom right corner. The ecliptic runs from the top left corner to the bottom about 1/4 of the way between W and NW.

Venus and the ecliptic on August 1st 2018, 1 hour after sunset.

W (west) is at the center bottom and NW near the bottom right corner. The ecliptic runs from the top left corner to the bottom just to the left of W.

Venus and the ecliptic on August 30th 2018, 1 hour after sunset.

So now’s the time for the easiest and latest observations of Venus, and September will be the time for the brightest and most interesting telescopic view of Venus!


Observing tips for July 4th, 2018 July 2, 2018

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro, Urban Observing.
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The forth of July brings a lot of people outside after dark. While you’re waiting for those fireworks to begin, here are a few things to look for.

I recommend taking along a pair of binoculars.


Venus and Mercury in the West July 3, 2018, 9:30 PM.

Start about half an hour after sunset (or about 9:30 in SE Michigan) and look west. About 20º ( 2 sideways fists) above due west is Venus. As the skies darken, it stands out like a beacon! look 16º (index finger to pinky) down and to the right for Mercury. Mercury can be a tough object to spot because it’s never far from the Sun, so it’s never visible in really dark skies. The first map is for July 3, 9:30 PM in Ann Arbor, but should be good for the 4th as well.


Jupiter and Saturn in the south at 10 PM July 4

Fireworks usually begin around 10 PM (especially if you’re farther north.) Get a seat facing south for some of the summer’s best celestial show. Jupiter is about 30º above the southern horizon, and Saturn about 10º up in the SE. While you’re looking that way, be sure to check out Scorpio and Sagittarius too. Bright Antares, the heart of the scorpion, falls between Jupiter and Saturn right now.

With binoculars or a small telescope, you can pull in the 4 brightest moons of Jupiter. They’ll be lined up in a tight row on the 4th, which helps make it easier to pick them out at low magnification.

From left to right, Io, Europa, Jupiter, Ganymede, and Callisto

The Galilean Moons of Jupiter at 10 PM July 4, 2018.

If you actually have a small telescope and can pull your eye away from Jupiter, check out nearby Zubenelgenubi, a nice double star whose name means “southern claw” because it was once considered part of Scorpius.

Saturn is sitting on the top of the teapot. If your skies are dark enough later in the evening, you’ll be able to see the Milky Way trailing up the sky next to it. With binoculars or a small scope, the rings should be visible, if only as a strangely oblong shape. Some of the brighter moons may also be visible, though they aren’t nearly as easy as Jupiter’s moons.

From left to right, Iapetus, Rhea, Saturn, Tethys, and Titan, which is actually much lower that the other moons.

Saturn and its moons, July 4, 2018 at 10 pm

It’s early days yet for Mars, but if you’re out past midnight, look back to the same are Saturn was at 10 PM. Mars rises ESE around 11 PM, so it’s up nearly 10º in the SE at midnight. It’s the brightest thing in that area right now, and only getting brighter, so if your skies are clear, it’ll be hard to miss. Keep an eye on it the rest of the month as it moves toward closest approach on July 31!

ES 2018 – Lightning talks – Active Learning May 11, 2018

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, teaching.
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Enriching Scholarship is an annual series of workshops on teaching and learning at the University of Michigan. This session was a series of lightning talks on Active Learning. There were 7 presenters. Titles below are my quick reinterpretation, not the listed talk titles (lightning talks = no time to type everything, I just wanted to be sure I got the names right!)


Yulia Sevryugina: Strategies in Chemistry

Prof. Sevryugina described a couple strategies she uses for her large chemistry lab.

  • Syllabus game
    • Students generally don’t read the syllabus, and don’t really pay attention if you go over it during class, so this is intended to engage the students actively with the syllabus. It also models some lab classes, though she didn’t say if it modeled the way her class operates.
    • The room is set up with stations, and the class is divided into groups. The stations can be completed in any order except the last one. At each station is a printed copy of the syllabus, and question sheets. As each group visits a station, they pick up and fill out the question sheet for that station. Once they have all the sheets filled out, they go to the last station, where they meet the instructor, get a sweet, and discuss some of the questions.
    • Some of the questions are actually discussion topics, such as “find out why your other groups members are taking this class” or “share some learning strategies you think will help you succeed in this class.”
    • Questions are designed to cover FAQs, help the students get to know each other, and get to know the instructor.
    • Assessment is points for completion of the question sheets
  • Canvas Discussion / Piazza
    • The anonymous option helps make the instructor more approachable, and decreases the students’ embarrassment with asking questions in front of their peers.
  • Jigsaw classroom
    • The students are first divided into “expert” groups. Each group is given an area to study at home and become an expert in. At the next class, new groups are formed with one person from each expert group: the jigsaw. Each jigsaw group is given a task or activity to complete as a group, which can include an artifact for formal assessment.
    • final grades should generally be a group grade, but should include a component for individual preparation, so students can’t shirk the expert phase.
    • It’s usually very useful to have a decompression phase at the end. In particular, it is helpful to have a whole-class discussion to ensure students identify holes in their expertise, or weaknesses in their problem solving strategies.
    • This technique can be used to increase student preparation. It slightly decreases the workload (e.g. instead of having to understand all of Newton’s laws, each student only really has to understand one) but increases the stakes (the jigsaw group is counting on that student for the information.)


Eri Bell: Increasing student interest in science via a capstone research project 

Prof. Bell introduced a research project culminating in a poster session in several large astronomy classes. He showed data for Astro 101 in Fall 2017, indicating that the large scale group project did intact significantly increase student interest and confidence in science. This is a large class, 180 students, but the poster session was still manageable. He offered a few tips and takeaways.

  • leave enough time for final revisions.
  • a good presentation space is important. posters in the lecture hall stifled conversation by making it difficult to move around. Having it in a space where the department members and surrounding departments could visit gave it much more of a feeling of a real poster session.
  • require peer interactions by requiring something like two peer evaluations or reports of other posters so that students are forced to interact with the other posters
  • I’ll add that from my point of view, having a good rubric was important. In particular, we needed to make sure we were grading on content, not appearance, so having specific measurable items was important to ensuring we gave fair grades.



Jessie Lee: Gallery walk sale presentation

Previously in HRM 305, students had done a final project where they were supposed to come up with an HR plan then give presentation at end of class. However, the other students really only engaged in passive listening, so the presentations didn’t seem very valuable except as a summative assessment, not at all like the real world. Prof. Lee changed it to be more like a gallery walk (think opening night of an art exhibition, or a poster session!)

  • held in a collaborative leaning space, where there are movable tables and chairs and wall-mounted monitors. Student groups were set up at stations around each monitor, or in groups that could travel from station to station. People at each station give a 10 minute talk, then 3 min Q&A. After the Q&A, the audience can move to a new station.
  • Students provide peer feedback on the presentations. The feedback form is structured and includes specific questions, as well as an opportunity for general comments. The presenters really liked getting the feedback.


Carol Shannon Teach, Assess, Revise: using assessment to drive revision

~2013 the college of pharmacy noted some issue with their curriculum: students were not working effectively, reported learning skills much later in the program than they should hav, and the faculty and staff had fundamental misconceptions about what students knew when they came in to the program. For example, students have no idea how to use the internet for scholarly research.

They needed new curriculum to address these issues.They changed problem sets to more closely match real-life scenarios, tried to match the specifics of what students rally needed (e.g. pubMed & Embase search). They began using a pre-test for all students to determine what was needed, and post test to see what the retained. Students learned more in classes where they had to do pre-work, so they’ll be revising the curriculum again!


Ruth Lee: Google Docs in first year writing class

Prof. Li taught ENG 125 – freshmen english (required). Classes are primarily discussion sections with about 20 students per class. She used many features of Google Docs to enhance collaboration, including real-time collaboration in class. Some examples:

  • assign an essay to read with things like vocabulary, citations, other items already highlighted. The highlights were color coded. This modeled what she expected the students to learn.
  • brainstorming – groups were given a section of google doc to work on, then were able to evaluate the other groups’ work without having to share documents.
  • group commenting – everyone put in their thesis statement, then  peers comment on it
  • class reading chart – Students make comments about the readings without identifying which reading. Peers try to identify the reading and give an explanation for why they think the comment belongs with that reading.

The students interacted well together, and were more meta-aware of the writing and collaborative process. Google docs work well in the relatively small group.

Further scaffolding to develop reading and writing skills would help (there’s always more work to be done!)


Dave Choberka – UMMA Exchange


UMMA has a collection database, but searching is hard because the keywords are limited (e.g. a search for Whistler or “Sea and Rain” would turn up the painting by that title, but not a search for “beach”, even though it’s a person walking on a beach.) Also, research on the collections tends to disappear after its done. The Exchange solves some of those problems.

  • you can create groups of objects, like all the things that seem to be about zombies
    • Once a group of objects is created, if you view one of the objects, it will show you all groups the object is on, and all the related objects.
    • You can select “On display” to see only objects that are actually on display in the museum.
  • You can create virtual exhibitions, which include text and resources from outside to help put the UMMA artifact in context.


Dominique Butler-Borruat:  “Lets talkabroad”

This is an online platform that provides trained conversation partners. It’s not just for language classes, it’s for conversation practice, including practice for professional communication. There is a fee per conversation. The conversation partners are vetted and coached before the conversations. Instructors can specify a region or the world (e.g. Prof. Butler-Borruat has students talking with people in French Guiana).

ES 2018 – keynote: Helping Students Learn In An Age Of Digital Distraction May 10, 2018

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, teaching.
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Enriching Scholarship is an annual series of workshops on teaching and learning at the University of Michigan. This year’s keynote address was “Helping Students Learn In An Age Of Digital Distraction” by Katie Linder. You can watch the presentation on the Enriching Scholarship website. Here is my summary of what I thought the important points were, and a little of my own commentary.

Dr Linder started the session with a website: http://www.donothingfor2minutes.com/. Try it.


There were two reasons for her use of this site. The first was to illustrate that two minutes can really feel like a long time. If you tried it, you were probably watching the count down, or tempted to check your phone, or you just gave up on it. It’s very difficult to just stop, even for two minutes. The other reason she used it was because you never know what the other people are brining into a room. Students might be worried about another class, a friend, a romantic partner, a parent, or what they’re going to wear to the bar tonight. Instructors also bring outside worries into the classroom. In fact, your list of worries might look a lot like the list of worries of your students. You don’t have to take 2 minutes of meditation at the start of every class, but an acknowledgment of the outside world and a moment to “be here now” can help everyone center and focus.

So, now that I’ve got your attention…

First and foremost, we have to get rid of the notion that “digital distraction” is a problem with “this generation.” As evidence, she offered this image of Vatican Square:


It’s Vatican square.

Those people are NOT teenagers.

We need to let go of the idea that our students are the ones with a problem with digital distraction. Most of us have, at some point, experienced an event through a screen even though we were present at the event. We check email or news before getting out of bed in the morning. We text our family at lunch time. We pull out our phone during dinner to find out more about the thing we were just discussing. We feel like we’ve left an appendage behind when we forget our phone. The only real difference is that we’ve had more time to develop coping strategies and awareness.

We often focus on managing the distractions available to the students. For example, laptop bans, network restrictions, and browser lockdowns. These strategies are useful for some things, like giving online tests, but they aren’t a good model of the real world. There will be no laptop ban for meetings at the company they go work for after graduation. If we want our students to be professionals from the day they graduate, we need to prepare them to be professionals.

We can start by trying to consider what they are brining with them into the classroom. Acknowledge they have lives outside this class and try to consider that when creating assignments. Give them that moment at the beginning to re-align their minds to your class. Explain why you’re asking them to do things, especially if you implement restrictions like a laptop ban. Consider the skills they have, and the ones they need to build. And don’t assume you know what those skills are – ask them.

If you really want them to engage with your class, you have to let them find their passion. Dr. Linder asked us to think for a moment about the last time we became so engrossed in something we were learning that we lost track of the time, then share it with our neighbors. The room became very animated with discussion, and several people were anxious to share their experience. Many people did their research digitally, using resources like Google and YouTube. However, interest in the subject enabled them to ignore distractions like email, even though many people always have email open. Additionally, when discussing it, audience members became deeply engaged with each other, even if they didn’t have the same personal interest in the subject. Try to find projects that your students can become passionate about, and share your passion for your subject, and your students will be less tempted by distractions.

Of course, not everything can be that engaging, and we need to train our students for those times too. Help students reflect on learning with short assessments like minute papers and mini reflections. Design assignments incorporating grit (perseverance, especially after failure.) Praise effort over intelligence, especially in formative assessment. Talk about learning and share cognitive literature with them. Model professional behavior for them, including the use of technology like smart phones as professional tools: research shows they tend to use their phones for entertainment and communication only. If they think of their phone as entertainment, it’s harder to resist the distractions, so share strategies for distraction management. Include them in the discussion: tell them what works for you and ask what works for them.

As a first step toward this, she suggested thinking about an area of focus for your students like meta-cognition, multitasking, cognitive load, or information literacy. Pick one area to start with, and write an appendix for your syllabus that explains its importance, cites the literature, and includes class and professional etiquette. If possible, tie a brief assignment to it. See for example, this excerpt from Sharmila Murthy’s syllabus.

Additional Resources