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Cosmos in the Classroom 2010:
Cosmos in the Classroom 2010:
An Invitation to Rethink How You Teach

March, 2010
Andrew Fraknoi; Foothill College & Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Join the Meeting this August!

Cosmos in the Classroom, the hands-on symposium on teaching introductory astronomy, will take place this summer from Sunday evening Aug. 1 to Wednesday afternoon Aug. 4, at the University of Colorado in Boulder. As they do every three years, instructors from colleges and universities at all levels will meet under the auspices of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) and the co-sponsorship of the American Astronomical Society, to discuss effective techniques, materials, and activities for teaching Astronomy 101 (and first courses in planetary astronomy and astrobiology.)

The three full days of the symposium will include:

  1. hands-on workshops demonstrating teaching techniques, materials, labs, etc. in a small-group participatory way
  2. special-interest group meetings for those who share some special situation or approach (e.g. those doing active education research, those who teach labs in a planetarium, those who teach part time and shuttle from one institution to another, etc.)
  3. poster papers (with time set aside for doing nothing but discussing these)
  4. a share-a-thon of syllabi and handouts
  5. a small number of plenary talks and panels.

Ed and Gina are actively involved in planning the program and will be offering a special thread throughout much of the conference. We hope that many others involved with CAE will want to share some of their expertise and experiences (or just come and participate and network with colleagues who have the same teaching triumphs and challenges you do.)

Readers of this web site should know that a significant number of scholarships have been arranged (some from CAE!) for those instructors whose institutions do not have travel budgets, with preference being given to those who work with significant populations of under-served minorities.
Anyone interested in attending the conference, but worried about how to pay for it, should be sure to apply soon for a scholarship. Click here for more info!

Boulder is a wonderfully pleasant city, and we have hotel rooms for just a little more than $100/day arranged (which can be shared to reduce costs further.) This year’s symposium will take place at the same time as the ASP’s 122nd Annual Meeting and a symposium on Education and Public Outreach for non-classroom educators.

More information and a registration and abstract submission process are available on the ASP web site.

Now the Background

Our best estimates are that roughly 250,000 college students take an introductory astronomy course in the U.S. each year. These courses are one of the most significant interfaces between the astronomical community and the educated voting public. Every four years, we expose a million college students to the story of the universe and their relationship to it. We also know that more than half of the Astro 101 courses in the country are offered at community, liberal arts, and state colleges that do not have a significant astronomical research program. Many of the instructors of these courses are not really “affiliated” with the astronomical community and rarely benefit from professional development. It has been clear for some time that more effort needs to be put into making sure that this enterprise is a successful one for all concerned.

For many non-science students, an astronomy course may be their one contact with the physical sciences during their entire college careers. We owe them an enriching experience that they will remember with pleasure. Yet it can often happen that the introductory astronomy class is not as successful an experience -- for either students or instructors -- as we would like it to be. The challenges of teaching such a course are many and varied:

  • how (or whether) to cover all of astronomy in one semester;
  • how to convert students from passive listeners to active learners;
  • how to deal with the widely varying math and science backgrounds (and attitudes toward
  • learning) of non-science majors these days;
  • how to take the students’ pre-conceptions about the nature of the physical world into account as we teach;
  • how to approach ideas that challenge some students’ religious beliefs, such as evolution
  • and the big bang;
  • how to offer a valid laboratory experience without requiring commuter students to come
  • back to a campus building at night;
  • how to evaluate student performance meaningfully (or train graduate students to do so);
  • and (depending on where the course is taught) the vexing issues of too many students, too little assistance, inadequate funding, and lack of proper equipment.

Many excellent new techniques and materials have been developed in recent years for addressing these issues, but they are often not finding their way to “the trenches”. This is what the Cosmos meetings are designed to accomplish.

History of the Cosmos Meeting

In 1996, under an initiative from the present author, the ASP offered (as an experiment) a short regional teaching workshop during its Annual Meeting in Santa Clara, California. To our surprise, almost 100 college instructors came for the meeting (which we called Cosmos in the Classroom) and voiced enthusiastic support for doing more. By 1998, we were ready for a more national conference and held it in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with about 150 instructors attending. An even larger group gathered in 2000 in Pasadena, California, and in 2004 at Tufts University, near Boston, nearly 200 instructors spent three intense days discussing the opportunities and challenges of the introductory astronomy course. A similar number gathered at Pomona College in August 2007.

The papers and handouts of these meetings have been published in handy loose-leaf format, and are still available through the ASP.

The emphasis at the Cosmos meetings has been on “practicing what we preach” -- not lecturing at one another, but gathering in small groups to try new ways of reaching our students, new materials and tools, and new ways of assessing our effectiveness. It’s also an opportunity to talk with other instructors who face the same challenges (and pleasures in teaching) as you do.

If you teach introductory astronomy, or will soon be teaching it as your career evolves, we cordially invite you to join us in Boulder this summer. Your students may thank you for it.

Teaching Strategies Archive

CAE is housed in the Astronomy Dept. at the Univ. of Arizona's Steward Observatory. CAE is funded through the generous contributions of the NASA JPL Exoplanet Exploration Public Engagement Program. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0715517, a CCLI Phase III Grant for the Collaboration of Astronomy Teaching Scholars (CATS). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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