McDonald Observatory and West Texas 2012

I traveled out to McDonald Observatory for work back in July and I'm just now getting around to posting the photos! This was the first time I'd been out in 5 years, and the first time since I had ventured into playing with HDR photography (more about that here, with my first HDR photo) so I figured I would have fun taking photos in what little spare time I had. That's the one thing about going out there for the board meetings - it's pretty much two days of travel and two days of being really busy! And to top it off, I managed to catch a cold shortly before leaving, so I was fighting the fatigue from that the whole time too. But it is always nice to get out to the dark skies and mountains of west Texas!

The area is recovering well from the horrible fires of 2011 and had even had a little rain in the week before I was there, so things greened up a little. The weather was great while I was there, and as usual, I was caught off-guard by how chilly it can get after dark, even in the middle of summer. (Seriously, I've been out there several times in July, you would think I would have learned my lesson by now!)

I had a chance to look through the 107" and the 36" telescopes this year, and it really brought home how much I am missing with the 16" in the middle of Austin (and with a very dirty mirror at the moment). When you aren't used to it, it can be a bit of a shock to be able to look into the eyepiece and see the Ring nebula straight on and without any of the tricks (filters, averted vision, etc.) that we have to do in the city. Perhaps the most astounding was the Whirlpool Galaxy and easily being able to see the spiral arms. And of course, Saturn was its usual gorgeous self!

On the way out Sunday morning I decided to leave a different way so I could swing through the Sierra Madera impact crater. I had done it once before when I was out in 2003, shortly after writing a paper on the impact craters in Texas for a geology class. I knew that at some point fairly recently they had put up signs on the highway to tell people that they were driving through it. It would be nice if they eventually put up a historical marker or some sort of information plaque, but just the acknowledgement that it was there at all is pretty cool!

The picture at the top goes to my Flickr set from the trip. You'll see that I went a bit overboard with the HDR on a few of the shots, but I was having fun!

A few thoughts on college education

Since I'm trying to get back in to blogging and writing more, I thought this would be a good place to jot down a few rambling thoughts I had today - mostly so I would have a place to refer back to it in the future!

(Anyone who stumbles across this and actually reads it - keep in mind that I've never taken an education class and am not very familiar with pedagogy and that most of the education I've done is in the informal outreach setting.)

One of our professors is planning to implement a "flipped classroom" approach for his introductory astronomy class next semester and part of my job will be helping him put together the materials. One of the "evangelists" of the technique in our college gave a seminar about it today and I tagged along to learn a few things - although I was hoping they might get a little more into the technology (which is what I wil mainly be doing). Still, I found it to be an interesting discussion of teaching and learning in the modern day university.

Near the end he was talking about some of the student feedback, both good and bad, after taking a class taught that way. The bad feedback was a comment from a student who said they wanted the professor to give clear lectures and spell out exactly how and on what materials they would be tested. I was nodding along with that so the seminar presenter asked for thoughts and pointed to me, and I mentioned, although I am not personally a faculty member, I have heard our faculty complaining about students having this attitude. Basically, they want a cookbook class - a set of numbered instructions that they need to follow to get the results they are looking for (a good grade, presumably). One of the actual faculty members chimed in and said "basically, they don't want to think". I wouldn't have put it quite that bluntly, but I think she was kind of right. At least I don't feel that the students want to have to think outside of a pre-instilled idea of how education is supposed to work. And that gets me to the epiphany that I had one the walk back to my office - this is the fallout of the state testing that the students who are now in college (if they grew up in Texas) have been doing all their school career. I realize that this is a broad generalization, and it might not even be the right conclusion, but it the idea just seemed to 'click' with me. Teachers are told the topics that they need to teach because those are the topics the students will be tested on. And in some cases, the students are basically told "these are the facts you will be tested on, learn them". And then at the end of the year (depending on their school grade) they are tested on just those concepts and facts. So when these students get to college, they kind of expect the things to be laid out the same way. The university does require a syllabus to be handed out to the students on the first day and that they will know what goes in to calculating their final grade, and I don't have a problem with that. But the feeling I'm getting is that students just want to be given a list of facts and concepts (or problem types) that they will be tested over and then that is all that will show up on exams. I've *literally* been told by a student "just give me the answer". But I, and others, don't think that is the end-all-be-all of education - to just be told a bunch of info by a professor and then regurgitate that answer back to them on homework, quizzes, and exams. You're not really LEARNING.

The example I alluded to above was up at the telescope one night. I run a public night that students also go to in order to do observing assignments from some of the professors (from our university and from the local community college and high schools). So, they often come in with a worksheet with little blanks to fill in (already getting a little too "cookbookish" for my taste for the college students, but these are mostly non-science majors) and come to me to get the info to fill in to those little blanks. Sometimes the answers are straightforward - the size of the telescope, things like that. But sometimes the questions give me a chance to make the students work for it a little instead of just *giving* the answer. In the case I'm remembering, we were looking at the binary star system Albireo in Cygnus, which is a pretty double with one golden star and one blue star. One of the students was writing down the info in order to write it up for a class assignment and needed to write down why the stars are different colors. I asked what class they were in and surmised that it wasn't going too far to expect them to either know or at least be able to guess what the correct answer was (they have different temperatures). After one or two half-hearted guesses the exasperated student said, in a not-too-kind tone "just give me the answer!". My immediate thought was to say "no, at least go look it up for yourself", but instead I asked around to the other students, one of whom knew the answer (and who I think was in the same class as the original student).

I'm sure there are - and always will be - lazy students who just want to follow a prescribed regimen and give a stock answer to straightforward questions. And I don't think any new teaching techniques will get to those students. But for the students who really want to learn and are really interested in the subjects, taking advantage of the new technology available to us - that the students are very comfortable with since the kids now in college grew up with it - is something at least worth trying. One of the speakers described the teacher as "coach" in the flipped classroom model, and I really liked that idea. You can teach them technique and give pointers to improve performance, but ultimately the student has to perform on their own.