Monday, January 16, 2006

Let's Begin at the Beginning

I don't blog much over the weekend. Well, I don't blog much at all, but since today was a holiday, and I'm trying to occupy myself this afternoon, I thought I'd add a post.

I'm feeling better from Friday, if you're wondering. I relaxed a bit, but it was still hard. I'm very hard on myself, and I don't let myself say what I want. It will be something that I have to work on in the upcoming future. I still want to move away to the distant wilderness, but I am a bit better.

Maybe I could find a nice country high school to teach physics at.

Continuing on with the conference recap, I found it interesting that during our poster day, the one topic that came up more than any was, "Do you really begin your astronomy class with the big bang?" Everytime, Makigirl had to answer "Yes, I really do." Note that this had nothing to do with what our poster was about.

For the unwashed, the vast majority of astronomy classes begin with some sort of discussion of our place in the universe and some basic Earth-centric facts. Here are the first chapters of a couple popular astronomy books:

Chaisson - "Charting the Heavens"
Comins - "Discovering the Night Sky"
Bennett - "The Universe Discovers Itself"

Makigirl's first week is spent talking about the nature of science (i.e. what is a theory), and then the second week begins with the beginning of the universe.

One can look at the typical astronomy book as largely defined by distance from the Earth (or some scaling parameter), as the three books mentioned above start with the Earth and then move to the planets and then to the more distant universe. However, mixed in there is their distinct chapters on physics -- Light, matter, gravity, telescopes and the like. In my opinion they don't fit. They're typically taught at the beginning before the student knows any astronomy, so there's no connection to the cool stuff out there in the universe (I think we can all agree that the blackbody function is boring). And, more importantly, they're decontextualized. Gravity, in my opinion, means alot more when you're discussing why a galaxy cluster looks the way that it does.

In order to solve this problem, Makigirl and I talked about having the class organized around a different guiding principle -- time. Here the course is explicitly designed around a fundemental parameter of astronomy. The universe began at a certain time, and then we follow it's course. Now, there are some places where that's difficult. The universe has been pretty boring for the last 10 billion years or so, but with some finagleing, everything can be made to fit logically, and the physics concepts can be more easily taught in line with the astronomical entities out there in the universe.

The other problem I see with the typical astronomy course is that it's also designed around a historical approach. Two of the three books mentioned above talk about pre-Keplarian astronomy (astronomy where the Earth is at the center of the universe). From my point of view, who cares? Well, if I was teaching a history class, then that would be great, but in a class where I only have 14 weeks to teach about astronomy and science to people who aren't going to be astronomers or scientists, why would I waste my time on stuff that we've known is wrong for at least 400 years?

The intersting thing about the conference was the number of enlightened teaching astronomers who were suprised that Makigirl arranged her class the way that she has. I would expect "Average Joe Astronomer" who's more concerned about research than teaching to teach straight out of the text. But, it was even the people who are supposed to be the leaders of astronomy ed, who had never thought of doing it this way. They teach out of the book, and that is sad. Astronomers are supposed to be scientists who question stuff. "Why do we teach this way or that?" Why is it that we're the first people to really be teaching this way and trying to compare it to other classes?

Then there were also the un-scientific rejections of this teaching methods as well. One textbook author told us that by admitting (on the first day!) that we didn't know what happened in the first .0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 second after the big bang, we were admitting weakness to our students, and that they would not listen to us for the rest of the semester. Got any data for that, son? Well, no, of course you don't. But let's think about that. We're supposed to be teaching the students that scientists aren't textbooks, that we are constantly reviewing and updating our theories, that we don't know everything, that you don't have to be some memorizing god to be a good scientist. I say that this class does a good job of that by coming straight out and saying it. Whether you lose your students or not has more to do with your abilities as a teacher during the rest of the sememster. Further, I find it interesting that a older, white male teacher (who really pulls of the professorial look with a big white beard) is interested in maintaining authority of knowledge with his students right off the bat. I say let the kids fight it out. If they were going to, they were going to anyway. At least it will be more interesting this way.

I fear that my text is becoming long and unruly. I will continue tomorrow.

Oh, and Makigirl is now in another country for a few weeks. Hopefully, she'll be able to stop by and read.


At 8:28 AM, Blogger maki-girl said...

Thanks for your thoughts on the conference hb. I know it's frustrating having to answer the same question all the time ("You really start with the Big Bang?") but at least we've gotten people thinking about it. Who knows, maybe someone else will decide to try it this way? I would say we could write a textbook but I hate textbooks.

Anyways, I'm glad you're feeling better. I'm really happy that you said what you wanted (at least sometimes) while I was visiting. I know it's hard.


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