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Colin’s Wallace: “Why I Do What I Do”:
Colin’s Wallace: “Why I Do What I Do”:
A Tale of Motivation

August, 2011
Colin Wallace & Gina Brissenden

This month I’d like to introduce the newest member to our CAE offices (or HQ). Colin has been collaborating with us for some time, which you’ll learn more about in his article. It has really been wonderful that through our CATS program, we have been able to bring him to CAE HQ as our newest postdoc. In This Month’s Teaching Strategy, Colin provides us with some insight into what has motivated him to pursue a career in Astronomy Education Research and the research questions he currently interested in. His article got me reflecting on my own motivations and how important it is to revisit them. We all work really hard on improving what we do because of our motivations—otherwise we’d all choose easier jobs! So, take a moment to reflect on what motivates you, pat yourself on the back for working hard, and enjoy Colin’s article.


I have always been passionate about science. I grew up watching science documentaries from the BBC, PBS, and the Discovery Channel. My favorite toys were always science-themed (dinosaurs, space, etc.). At various points in my childhood, I wanted to be a paleontologist, a geologist, or an astronomer.

My interests expanded to science education once I reached high school. In high school, I began arguing with creationist classmates. For the first time in my life, I realized I had peers who either did not understand how science worked or rejected it in favor of a different worldview. But at least my creationist friends were interested in science. Many more of my peers were simply apathetic. For them, science just was not important (except as the source of another grade). The big ideas of science – the origin of the universe, the emergence and evolution of life, the rise of humans, the very aspects of science that always entranced me – had no effect on their worldviews.

I quickly figured out why. Though I have had many excellent teachers from elementary through graduate school, I have also had my fair share of teachers who made science tedious, dull, and seemingly irrelevant. For example, I remember many physics classes that were less about physics and more about mathematics. Everything about these classes was devoted to calculating numbers and manipulating formulae. At the end of these courses, I would frequently ask myself “What new insights have a gained about the universe?” Sure, I may be more adept at Lagrange multipliers, but that is not what attracted me to science. I can easily understand why this “tyranny of technique” (a phrase I borrow from Tobias’s They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different) drives away talented and intelligent individuals from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. By the end of my undergraduate studies, I knew I wanted teaching – good teaching – to be an important part of my career.

That was one of the reasons I chose the University of Colorado at Boulder for graduate school. The Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) made clear that they were interested in helping my classmates and me develop as teachers, primarily through CU-Boulder’s Graduate Teacher Program. Little did I know that CU-Boulder was rapidly becoming a national hub for STEM education research.

The first time I really became aware of the breadth and depth of STEM education research at CU-Boulder is when Noah Finkelstein gave the APS department’s colloquium. He gave a fantastic overview of the work his physics education research group was doing at CU-Boulder. At the time I was a third-year graduate student, recently advanced to Ph.D. candidacy, and looking for a suitable Ph.D. project. I wanted a project that I had ownership in designing, but that also seemed important. Noah’s description of the sort of work his group does seemed to fit the bill. But in a stunningly un-metacognitive moment, my only thought at the end of his colloquium was “Huh. That’s really interesting stuff. I wish I could do that. Oh well.”

Fortunately, I was soon approached by APS’s Doug Duncan, who asked if I might be interested to doing a Ph.D.-level astronomy education research (AER) project. The project would be done in collaboration with Ed Prather and the people at the Center for Astronomy Education (CAE) as part of the Collaboration of Astronomy Teaching Scholars (CATS) program. After reading up on the field, I determined this was where I belonged and I jumped at the opportunity. Ed, Doug, and Noah were all happy and willing to help. I quickly identified students’ difficulties with cosmology as an under-researched aspect of AER. For my dissertation, I studied Astro 101 students’ conceptual and reasoning difficulties with cosmology and I co-authored (along with Ed) a new suite of five cosmology Lecture-Tutorials.

I am thrilled to now be a postdoc at CAE. I can now work with everyone at CAE in-person on a daily basis. I am interested in researching the effect of Astro 101 on students’ worldviews. Does Astro 101 substantially affect students’ perspectives on the world and life? If so, how? If not, why not? I believe answering these questions gets at the very heart of why many Astro 101 instructors take their jobs so seriously.

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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