Teaching… about ALIENS!


Oh, wow. Hi. Back. Or something…

Um, yeah! So my month of teaching MADNESS is done. And weddings and seeing family and Tim’s family and all that good stuff is behind me. And I’m trying to get my head all back into research and such, and lots going on, plus my inbox is still full of unanswered messages and raging to-do’s… but I promised I’d say a few words about teaching. So here I go!

If you hadn’t heard before, I taught a summer course at the University of Virginia called “Life Beyond Earth.” This course was created by Prof. Bob Rood, and is usually taught by him. He is an astronomer who has done stellar evolution, radio astronomy, SETI searches AND is a cool guy who takes fantastic pictures and cooked fabulous meals for our outreach group. During the summers, however, our department opens up the courses for graduate students to teach, and I was delighted to get this position. Also, a bit terrified. I had tutored students in both of our 1000-level courses for a few semesters already, plus I had lots of great material from an interactive learning workshop put on by the Center for Astronomy Education at the last January American Astronomical Society meeting. LBE, however, was a 3000-level course (don’t ask why we went to a four-digit system, I don’t know) so I had no material prepared, though plenty of ideas of what I wanted to cover.

Are we alone?

Lucky for me, I have a good support system here. I borrowed lecture notes from Rood and several other people, so I had a bank of lecture material to choose from. However, when opening up a presentation, I like to have an idea of the story, and use as few words as possible on the slides themselves. So all these pictures tell a story, but I don’t know someone else’s story all that well. I had to build my own. So I set about putting together my lectures on my own, but using the resources I had. In addition to lectures, I was using a textbook that I really liked, “Life in the Universe” by Jeffrey Bennett and Seth Shostak. I really like Jeffrey Bennett’s textbook style and ideas about science education, so I figured I’d be in good hands there. The book made sure to emphasize HOW we know what we know, and that’s crucial to understanding science. In addition, since I couldn’t use a lot of the ready made Astro-101 interactive learning tools out there, I tried to incorporate some of the review and rather insightful discussion questions from the book in lecture. To the extent which I did that is, well, probably not up to my own standard. But it all just happened so fast!

So, for a summer course, you have to squeeze a semester’s worth of material into a month. That means 2 hour and 15 minute lectures every weekday. Oy. I started preparing lectures a week before, even though it was unsure whether my class would run due to low enrollment. Naturally, I got caught up in producing top quality presentations with all creative commons or public domain and properly attributed and with notes and all… well, that takes too long. And my advisor even warned me about that, knowing me as he does! And yet, it was so hard to resist. Needless to say, I got sloppy with aspects of that in order to be able to crank them out with the proper speed, therefore, they are not published until I polish them up. Hopefully. Someday.

I decided to cover the scientific basics of Life in the Universe first, though in the future, I might not do it that way. It meant getting into the “sexy” topics a bit later, and maybe it would have helped to spread it around. In any case, we talked about the universe (in one lecture), star and planet formation and how those affect the chances for life elsewhere, and then biology on Earth. On that last bit, I was saved by the fact that none of my students (who were all interesting and bright and fun and excellent, by the way) were biologists. However, biology was always my second favorite science, and I could talk about the interesting intricacies of evolution all day, and I pretty much did.

With thanks to Colin Purrington.

Eventually we stepped off the sturdy platform of more basic science topics and into the nature of intelligence, sociology, the work of SETI, the Fermi Paradox, etc. Things that without a solid background I was less comfortable with. But, they were fun to talk about. I got a bit over excited for the UFO lecture, and I stayed up way too late preparing that. Since the book didn’t go into much detail on that, I assigned an excellent two-part article on UFOs in Junior Skeptic, and they seemed to enjoy it. We ended with a few lectures on human life beyond Earth, starting with manned spaceflight history, analyzing the present situation, and getting really fanciful with future spaceship design.

Despite the fact that I worked longer hours and slept less consistently than I had in a long while, I really had fun. I also see a lot of room for improvement. For one, well, being prepared with material the next time around will certainly be a help. I feel as though I built a skeleton of a class upon which I can build upon. For example, I can do better with the interactivity aspect. I actually had a teaching evaluation done by a member of the Teaching Resource Center (TRC), and that was incredibly helpful. We discussed some strategies for drawing out student questions, something that I was unprepared to do and didn’t do so well at. We did get some interesting discussions going, but I would have liked to have done more of them. I also tended to move between topics without a transition or a “take-home” point, and that probably would have been much more helpful for the students. The discussions also generated some wonderful ideas, but I was afraid that they never went anywhere. The evaluator suggested having them do a discussion journal, or following up with some other writing activity to cement the conclusions of each discussion. I could have also worked on having more demos (I had almost none, though plenty of Sagan video) and quantitative reasoning problems.

This guy, only with sound!

To be honest, I haven’t looked at the student evaluations yet. I know they are available, or at least I think they are. I’m afraid. Gah! What if they hated it??? I’m sure I’ll work up the courage soon. With my excellent timing, after taking the teaching position I found out that the TRC has a two-year program called “Tomorrow’s Professors Today.” Well, I applied and was accepted, so I’ll have plenty of opportunities to develop my ideas and skills over the next two years. I’ve also gotten some fantastic advice from the lovely Barbara Drescher on how to teach science as a process, not just a series of facts. I feel like I’m just at the beginning of a very long process!

Well, that was one of the more rambly posts I’ve written in a while… or ever. I guess I had a lot to get out that had been on my mind about the class and the whole process of teaching. I’m not going to bother polishing it up, so forgive me. There will be more to come as I continue this journey…

3 thoughts on “Teaching… about ALIENS!

  1. Sounds like you did a fantastic job, I’d love to do a course like this. Can’t go wrong with the Sagan video!

  2. Great job, and thanks for the great post! I’m definitely going to refer back to this if I get a chance to teach an astro course.

  3. Teaching a class in a month is going to be how I’ll teach *every* class from now on…. Quest University (where I’m starting) is on the block system, much like Colorado College. Students just take one class at a time, but they hyperfocus on it.

    I’ve got five new courses (September through January) lined up. In February, I think I will sleep.

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