Building a Community of Practice:
We Are not Alone!
Reflections on the NASA CAE New England Regional Teaching Exchange
Waller, Tufts University; Morin, Plymouth State University; & Brissenden, University of Arizona
if you've read the "About Us" page, then you may already know that the NASA Center for Astronomy Education is dedicated to connecting practicing astronomy instructors in order to share ideas, pose questions, and suggest successful practices. We know the importance of being part of a community interested in the same issues you are: improving teaching and learning in our introductory astronomy courses. One of the ways we help build local communities of practitioners is to sponsor NASA CAE Regional Teaching Exchanges. These are locally run gatherings that follow-up one of our Teaching Excellence Workshops designed to keep a regional area of astronomy instructors connected even after our workshop has left.
One such Exchange recently took place in New Hampshire—the NASA CAE New England Regional Teaching Exchange, co-hosted by William Waller (NASA's Science Mission Directorate E/PO Support Network, Tufts Univ.) and Tom Morin (Plymouth State Univ.). Here's what they had to say about their Exchange:
This workshop built on a "Teaching Excellence" workshop that was run by NASA CAE May 20-21, 2006 at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium and New Hampshire Technical College in Concord, NH. At this workshop Tom Morin and I were recruited to have a more extensive role within the NASA CAE community by starting a Regional Teaching Exchange that would bring these workshop participants back together once or twice a year to continue our conversations and professional growth. We held our first exchange Sept. 25, 2006. Astronomy instructors who attended the exchange were primarily from the New England area, though we did have one participant travel all the way from Florida! Though many of the participants had attended the Teaching Excellence Workshop last May, several had not. The Exchange provided them the opportunity to learn from their peers about some of the instructional strategies presented in the previous workshop.
Thomas Morin had arranged for our Teaching Exchange to be held at Plymouth State Univ. (PSU). We began around noon with a brief tour of the new observatory by Thomas Morin and a full "tour" of the PSU planetarium by Dennis Machnik which he runs along with his duties as a Physics instructor. We discussed various strategies for engaging students in learning through guided planetarium experiences. We then moved to Frost Hall (a lovely gathering place named after renowned poet, and former PSU faculty, member Robert Frost) for lunch and guided discussions.
The primary "object" being exchanged at this meeting was our course syllabi, with the purpose of discussing the extent to which they conveyed our course goals. In addition, we discussed our own personal goals—for this meeting and for ourselves.
Our goals for this exchange were gathered online prior to the event. They include:
Goals for the Exchange
- Sharing of information and resources.
- Sharing of ideas for teaching
- Prioritizing needs, challenges, and solutions—what's important?
We began our Exchange at Plymouth St. Univ. by fleshing out and sharing our goals for teaching introductory astronomy—our course goals—which we summarized as:
Goals for Our Students
- Understanding the nature of scientific (evidence-based) reasoning.
- Understanding basic concepts of the Universe in both space and time.
- Personally engaging in active scientific inquiry.
To accomplish these goals, we determined strategic questions (or implementation issues) that we, as instructors, would have to answer:
- What choice of topical content do we make?
- How do we make best use of textbooks (including on-line versions)?
- How do we best assess our students' learning through the use of exams, quizzes, homework, observing journals, etc.?
- What other feedback mechanisms and communication technologies can we use with our students?
- How do we balance the use of in-class activities (Lecture-Tutorials, etc.) in the classroom?
- How do we address the diversity in student backgrounds and learning modes?
With respect to this last bullet, there was strong agreement that our pertinent professional societies (AAS, ASP, NSTA, AAPT, NEA, ASCD, ASTE) should stipulate that astronomy be required for education majors. This recommendation stems from the large number of education majors who end up teaching elementary students, yet have no knowledge of astronomy—despite this scientific topic being the most popular among children!
We also identified and shared educational resources that we found valuable. In addition to the NASA CAE materials on learner-centered instruction, and other NASA mission-related education resources, we noted:
Note: Both the planetarium and planisphere programs require ,preparation" of your computer to run the programs.
We continued our Exchange at a local eatery, where Tom Morin carried out our exit assessment:
- Participants thought it useful that they had a chance to see what others are doing in their respectful astronomy courses.
- Participants agreed that continued networking was important in sharing ideas. They stressed that the person-to-person contact during the workshop (rather than electronic communication) worked best in sharing and networking.
- They enjoyed their time together sharing ideas and view points.
- Discussing pedagogy was unique and valued during the workshop.
- They reached consensus that more people are needed for future workshops.
One unforgettable comment came from our Florida attendee. In his 40 years of teaching astronomy at his community college, he never had the chance to seriously discuss pedagogy with his colleagues. The NASA CAE New England Regional Teaching Exchange was worthwhile just for providing him with such an opportunity!