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Tips for teaching intro astronomy July 12, 2017

Posted by aquillam in Science, teaching.
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First and foremost: this may be the only science class some of these people ever take, so think carefully about what you want them to get out of the class.

  • How do you want to change them? What do you want them to remember 20 years from now, even if they don’t specifically remember that they learned it in this (or any other) class. Always keep this in mind when making lesson plans.

Make lesson plans

  • A complete, formal lesson plan includes goals for the unit (usualy a chapter from the text), the most important ideas, a brief outline of the lecture material, notes on potential problems, topics covered in lab/discussion and homework, and what details will come from the book only.
  • If you don’t do a formal, complete lesson plan, at least write down the items from the unit you want to change them, the items they need to understand future units, and the items you want them to know for the exam. If the only thing you have is items you want them to know for the exam, consider dropping the unit.

Be aware of student expectations

  • Many students take astronomy thinking they will learn things like the names of constellations, mythologies, or how to read a sundial.
  • Many students take astronomy because they are afraid of taking a “hard science” class like physics or chemistry, or they think astronomy will have less math.
  • Be up front with them about the topics covered and the necessity of using math as well as fundamental physics, chemistry, and possibly geology and biology.

Don’t repeat the book

  • The book is expensive. If you’re just going to repeat it, don’t make them buy it. Instead, cover the material from a different angle, point out connections students are likely to miss in the reading, address common misconceptions, and use active learning techniques to engage the students and increase their level of understanding (in other words, make reading the book homework, and use class time for homework-like activities.) Let the book fill in details like numbers or specific features. Don’t add extra details unless it’s to tie things together or involves a discovery too interesting to skip or too recent for the book.

Be aware of deadlines

  • Know when the last day of drop-add is and be prepared for students who add the class on that day.
  • Make sure there is enough evaluated work or sample of the exam so students can assess whether or not they should drop before that day.



Summer solstice 2017 June 19, 2017

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro.
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The June Solstice occurs at 04:24 UT on June 21, 2017. That’s just after midnight EDT, so for most of the US the solstice falls on the 20th!

Here in Ann Arbor, the longest day of the year will actually be the 20th, despite the solstice falling on the 21st. That’s because we’re far west in the time zone, our clocks are ahead of the Sun. A bit farther east, say in New York, the 20th and 21st are basically equal in length. That’s more what you’d expect for a solstice close to midnight.

So enjoy the half second or so of extra darkness on the solstice.

Saturn Opposition 2017 June 16, 2017

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro, Urban Observing.
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It’s summertime, and that means Saturn-time!

But why is that?

A year on Saturn is a bit more than 29 years on Earth, which means Saturn moves about 12º along the ecliptic each year. For comparison, the Moon moves about 15º per day, so in a whole year, Saturn’s position will change less than the the Moon changes in a single day! It fact it’s so little that it take Saturn an average of two years to move through each zodiac constellation. Last year Saturn crossed the boundary into Ophiuchus (between Scorpio and Sagittarius), and it won’t leave until December. That means Saturn will be visible in the evening at about the same time this year as it was last year.

Ophiuchus is often called the 13th zodiac because itt sits between Scorpio and Sagittarius

Saturn takes 29 years to make a complete circuit of the ecliptic

Of course 12º isn’t nothing. Each year opposition drifts just a little farther east along the ecliptic, so the date changes. And since there are 360º in a circle and 365 days in a year, the date corresponds to roughly a degree per day! This year, opposition was June 15th. In 2016, it was June 3, and in 2015, May 23. Next year, opposition will be June 27.

By the way, opposition is when something (like Saturn) is opposite something else (like the Sun) in the sky. So when Saturn is at opposition, it rises at sunset, then sets at sunrise. Each night it rises a little earlier, so the weeks following opposition are the best time for evening observers to get a look. Closest approach is always close to opposition too, so the planet will be bigger and brighter than usual.


At opposition, the Sun, Earth, and outer planet are on a line with the Earth in between.


Because the orbits aren’t circles, the Earth may get closer to the outer planet a few days before or after opposition.


So enjoy summertime Saturn while you can. In about 4 more years, it’ll be fall when Saturn’s out.

Enriching Scholarship 2017 – A Digital Profile of U-M Students May 8, 2017

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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In this session, a handful of students shared their “digital profile”, which was recoded from browser plug-ins on their laptops and a app on their phones. They reported primarily on what activities they did, not on how much time they actually spent. There were a few key takeaways

Students tend to use laptops to work, their phones for entertainment. They feel having a laptop is pretty much a necessity, despite the computing centers around campus. A phone is essential. without a phone, you are isolated.

On the question of phones or laptops in the classroom, they feel it actually depends on the class and the students. Some students really feel the need to take notes on the laptop. It is stupid to prohibit laptops in a computer programming class. It’s distracting if the person in front of them is watching football, or if their phone goes off.

Phones may actually be a sort of defense mechanism. If they can text their friend, they don’t have to stress about meeting the person next to them. They use their phones less in (or before) classes where they have come to think of their neighbors as “friends” rather than “classmates”. Some good icebreakers, especially things that are relevant to the class but still personal may help (maybe some of those Liberating Structures?)

Some students check email a lot. Some never do. Some check Canvas Announcements. Some don’t. Some are on Snapchat all the time. Some are on Facebook. Some are on Twitter. The best platform for communications with them is whatever their friends are on. It helps to be clear about how you plan to communicate.

GroupMe is nearly ubiquitous. It is a group MMS app that allows sign up through email, so you don’t have to give strangers (i.e. classmates) your phone number. Chances are good that there is a groupMe for your class, but there’s a fraction of your class that doesn’t know about it. It may be helpful for you to facilitate this, but your students do NOT want you on the GroupMe, so the best thing to do may be to ask for one or two volunteers manage it. There are some pitfalls (like the potential for harassment) but if the students are going to do it anyway, it’s probably better for you to try and ensure it’s more inclusive than to let those who aren’t part of the in crowd struggle on their own.