Seeing for Yourself

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Ryan Turner, Astronomy (Home Department: Earth and Planetary Science)

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013

Introductory science classes are not necessarily about making sure that students are prepared to move forward in a particular discipline, but about engaging people in the process of science through the lens of a particular subject. Many students are simply fulfilling a requirement, and it may be the last bit of formal exposure to science that they ever get. It’s critical, then, not to fill them with facts they will likely forget in a year, but to light a spark of curiosity about the world that can burn in them for the rest of their lives.

In the name of inspiration, what would an astronomy class be without a look through a telescope? With Campbell Hall and its observatory being rebuilt, the astronomy department is reduced to a couple of small, portable scopes — workable for small groups but, unless you have enough trained GSIs to run star parties all semester, difficult for giving hundreds of students an opportunity to look through a telescope. As head GSI for Geoff Marcy’s Astronomy C12 course “The Planets” in Fall of 2012, I was faced with a difficult question: How do I give 350 people a glimpse of the stars and connect them to the subject material in a meaningful way?

I pursued several options, such as hosting multiple star parties or arranging field trips to local science centers, but time constraints and transportation logistics would thwart those plans. Eventually, the solution dawned on me: I would invite the local astronomy clubs to come together for a large-scale star party on Memorial Glade. These amateur astronomers do this sort of outreach all the time, bringing with them their impressive telescopes and more knowledge about the visible objects of the night sky than many professionals. I found about eight volunteers representing the Mount Diablo Astronomical Society, the Eastbay Astronomical Society and the Tri-Valley Stargazers, many of whom were friends of mine from my time as a volunteer telescope operator at Chabot Space & Science Center. The professor, GSIs, and I promoted the star party heavily in class and made it easy to get some course credit for participating.

The day arrived and, thankfully, the November weather cooperated. All five GSIs were on hand, checking students in on lists as they arrived. Before very long we had hundreds of people lined up at the scopes, each of which pointed at a different object — from Jupiter and its moons to the beautiful Orion Nebula and various star clusters. As attendees went from scope to scope to soak it all in, the volunteer telescope operators shared their enthusiasm and their knowledge of the objects that the students had been studying. Since everything had been pretty well set in motion, the GSIs and I had the enviable job of simply talking to students as they waited in line, feeding their anticipation by giving them the context for what they were seeing. Distances, scales, and our relationship to the objects are everything when one looks through the eyepiece, and prepping people for that moment is wonderfully rewarding as a teacher.

Not everything we learn in school is easily quantified, and the goal of the C12 star party did not include specific learning objectives. The effectiveness of the project was measured in oohs and aahs as students took their first look through the eyepiece. Orchestrating and executing this star party, coupled with the feedback from happy students and volunteers both during and after the event, made this my proudest moment as head GSI for “The Planets.” I know it was something that a great many of those students will never forget.