Aaron T. Lee, Ph.D.
Astronomer and Educator
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Courses

 

Courses Taught

ST. MARY’S COLLEGE of California

  • Physics 1, Introduction to Physics I (majors), F2019

  • Physics 10L, Introduction to Physics II (non-majors) Lab, W2019

University of Texas - AUSTIN

  • Star Formation and the ISM, guest lecturer, F2018

University of Massachusetts - AMHERST

  • Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics, guest lecturer, W2017

  • Introduction to Computational Physics, independent study, W2017

University of California - BERKELEY

  • Introduction to Astronomy (non-majors), S2015

  • Pedagogy and Instructional Methods, F2014, F2014, F2011, F2010


INTRODUCTION TO ASTRONOMY

I have been both a teaching assistant and the instructor on record for UC Berkeley's Introduction to Astronomy course (Ay10). As a teaching assistant, I had the pleasure of working with Alex Filippenko on his 800-student version of the course; several semesters I was the head assistant and we worked very closely on the course material. These opportunities have helped mold my own teaching philosophy and practices, which culminated in the opportunity for me to teach Ay10 on my own during the Summer of 2015. 

My teaching practices focus on having the students deduce main conclusions on their own rather than me lecturing non-stop. Class activities and lectures often start with evidence or data, and students hypothesize the conclusions that can be drawn from the data. Sometimes the data is generated on the spot, such as when I run a zodiac debunking activity. For this activity, students are presented with 12 horoscopes, taken from a horoscope website, that were the horoscopes for the previous day. They must read all 12 and select the horoscope that is most consistent with their previous day. We then see whether students are able to correctly select their own horoscope. The results: there are a few matches, but the number of matches is consistent with random guessing (i.e., ~1/12th select their actual horoscope).

Students are not blank slates. They come to the classroom with a wealth of conceptions and misconceptions about astronomy. Often, the collective knowledge of the students is spot on; often, students know or can intuit the right answer as long as they are given the opportunity and the appropriate tools to do so. The human wiki project allows students to assess their own understanding, while allowing me to assess what students entering the course do or do not know. On the left, a group of students were asked "What do astronomers do?" Once a group of students worked on the problem, they passed their answer to a different group, who then edited and improved the answer. This was repeated one more time. The final answers: fairly decent. It hit on many of the major aspects of astronomy, but also revealed a few misconceptions on what astronomers do day-to-day. 

With the traditional introductory astronomy class, where students are assaulted with too many facts, I hesitate that students leave the course fully capable of defining the words "science" and "research." To remedy this, I adapted projects from Slater and Slater's Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry book, where students engage in the entire research process over the course of three hours. Using online (real) data, groups of students first answered pre-determined questions that took them through the entire research process (formulate a question, decide on a data collection method that will help answer the question, collect data, reach an evidence-based conclusion from that data), with more parts of the process becoming their responsibility as the lab continued. By the end, they had to formulate their own question, come up with their own data collection method, collect the data, and reach their own conclusion. These results were then drawn up on a poster and presented to the class. While this cut significantly into lecture time, students found the process incredibly gratifying. I felt confident that my students left the course with a better sense of how science is conducted, and that they understand that this process is not reserved to only the privileged few that live atop the ivory tower of research academia. For a class that will likely be the last science class many of these students ever take, I find being able to appreciate and understand the role and process of science to be much more important than, say, being able to distinguish between active galactic nuclei and quasars (something students likely forget after a few years anyway).

 

TEACHING HOW TO TEACH

High quality teaching does not emerge from simply having high quality activities that make use of the latest results in the pedagogy literature. Pedagogy techniques are not "recipes for success" to be used blindly. There must be a passion behind wanting to teach if a teacher is to have any hope of making a connection with the students. How a teaching assistant or teacher approaches the course has a significant impact. Each instructor is different, and even if they are new to teaching, they are also not blank slates. The human wiki activity can also be used to gauge instructors' perceptions of their students, like asking the question "What do your students think astronomers do?" I have done this activity with first-year graduate students; an example is shown to the left (compare what the new instructors think their students believe versus what the students actually believed). 

The training of future faculty, even research faculty, in the teaching of astronomy is a worthwhile pursuit that many R1 institutions have devalued. I have dedicated much of my graduate studies to running the department's pedagogy course, required of all first-year graduate students. In this course, we focus on personal introspection as well as the practical tools (writing quizzes, implementing group work, etc.) so that teaching can be enjoyable and fun. My course is not what the university thinks that the course should be, which is a course filled with pedagogy literature reading. Twenty papers on the effectiveness of group work will not tell you how to actually implement effective group work. What do you do when you're in the classroom and 30 sets of eyes are staring at you waiting for instruction? The answer won't be found in any academic study. My approach is instead one of "applied pedagogy," which has the new teachers simply try new things and report back through class discussions, online emails, or journaling. For example, one week's homework assignment might be to "Try a new type of group work activity. What worked and didn't work? What would you do differently next time? Journal your experiences and answers to these questions and bring it with you to class next week." And time and time again, without ever having to mention the results from the literature, the course members are able to conclude themselves on what are the benefits and pitfalls of, say, group work, their findings always coinciding with the results from the literature. But since they experienced and discovered these results, the results are more meaningful and therefore more memorable. 

It is my hope that more universities will pay attention to the development of future faculty, lest we forget that the primary and original role of the university is to teach.