Animations for Understanding Astrophysics

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an interactive figure is worth even more. Students in my AST10G class (introductory astronomy for general education) find certain concepts difficult—not because they are inherently difficult, but because no one has produced a really good visualization. From spring 2013 through winter 2014, I worked with small groups of UC Davis physics majors to produce these interactive tools for understanding. Astronomy instructors find these useful, and it was a great learning experience for the physics majors.

Education Philosophy

No matter how much I watch my daughter practice on the piano, I don't get any better at playing it. So why would we think students will get better at doing science by just watching faculty? Two decades of physics (and now also astronomy) education research has shown that interaction and engagement yield greater understanding than does lecture. Students enter our classes with strong preconceptions about how the physical world works, and these are not changed by mere lecturing. Careful assessment shows that in a lecture class, students come to understand at best 25% of the concepts that they did not already understand before the course began. They pass exams more by recognizing question-and-answer patterns than by true understanding.

Intrigued? Physics instructors who want to know more should read Randy Knight's book Five Easy Lessons. (I don't know if other sciences have their equivalent of this book; if not, the first part of this book could serve as a wake-up call.) For more general background reading, I recommend the book How People Learn from the National Academy of Sciences.

Student attitudes toward science

One of my goals in teaching a large general education class is to get nonscientists to appreciate the nature of science and to think that it's more important, fun, and doable than they previously thought. I decided to actually measure my impact using pre- and post-instruction surveys. The results were quite encouraging; read my paper Shaping Attitudes Toward Science in an Introductory Astronomy Course for more details.