Professor Meredith Hughes taught a service-learning course this fall called Seminar on Astronomical Pedagogy. Course participants studied methods for effectively teaching astronomy to elementary school students. Their semester-long project was to design and present their own presentation using Wesleyan’s portable Starlab planetarium at a local elementary school. I interviewed Hannah Fritze ‘18, Jesse Shanahan MA ‘17, and John Hossain MA ‘17, who were all enrolled this fall, about their final projects.
1) First, tell me about the project:
Hannah Fritze ‘18: Everyone in our Astronomical Pedagogy Class was assigned to give one or two presentations in a portable planetarium called the StarLab. We practiced in the planetarium once beforehand, and designed our own presentations. They ranged from talking about the lives of stars, to interesting things we know about planets, to random space facts. Mine fit into the “random space facts” category. One of the things I made sure to do was teach them how to find north, because when I was a kid I just thought North was in front of me all the time. I also taught them about how stars are different colors, what the horizon is, and whether the stars stay up in the daytime. I told them a few myths associated with constellations they’d be able to see from their backyard.
Jesse Shanahan MA ‘17: Our project was to prepare presentations for the portable planetarium (Starlab) for use in elementary schools. After preparing our presentations, we visited elementary schools and gave our presentations.
2) How did it fit into the course as a whole?
John Hossain MA ‘17: The course is a pedagogy course, required for graduate students and also open to upper-level science undergrads. We spent the first few weeks learning different teaching techniques, and then implemented them into our Starlab shows. In essence, the Starlab shows were a “final project,” bringing together all that we had learned.
3) What was your role in it?
John: Each one of us created our own Starlab shows and we each were assigned to one or two groups of elementary/middle schoolers. My assigned group was a 3rd grade class, so I wrote my show around some fundamental information about stars and cardinal directions, followed by a discussion about ancient Greek and Native American constellations.
Jesse: As a graduate student, my role was to participate in class, give a presentation on a pedagogical topic (I chose to discuss how to make classrooms more accessible for students with disabilities), and also give the final Starlab presentations.
4) What surprised you about it?
Hannah: The kids knew more than I expected them to. I had elementary school students. I expected they would be correct when I asked them where the horizon was. I wasn’t expecting them to know that the stars don’t go away in the daytime, or accurately guess why stars are different colors (different temperatures). They also recalled information better than I expected. A little while after I told them about stellar colors, I asked them if they remembered if Polaris, a yellow star, was one of the hottest, the coolest, or in the middle. They remembered immediately. I was impressed.
John: The timing! I was worried about running out of time and so I put many parts into my show, but you lose track of how quickly things go when you’re in the Starlab and you’ve got a group of very excited young students who have a thousand questions. I almost had to rush near the end.
5) What impact do you think the project had?
John: I hope I made my group of 3rd graders excited to learn more about our natural universe. They certainly seemed excited and kept asking questions, and there were plenty of “oohs” and “aahs” when I projected the different “night skies” and started sharing some of the cooler facts. My hope is that the lasting impact on the students is one of curiosity and the willingness to make new discoveries for themselves.
Hannah: I really hope that a bunch of them went home excited about space, or talked to their friends about it. I’m always excited to tell people about space, and I think it’s really cool, so I hope some of that rubbed off on them.
Jesse: I think that giving young children the opportunity to experience science is absolutely critical. I actually started a program at Wesleyan called Kids’ Nights. Done twice monthly, Kids’ Nights usually have a presentation, observing with telescopes, science experiments, etc. Both Kids’ Nights and the Starlab presentations for Pedagogy hope to encourage curiosity for astronomy. Young students have a lot of enthusiasm, and I think it’s important to engage that and try to prevent it from fading over time.
6) What do you want elementary school students to know about astronomy?
Jesse: I want them to know that each and every one of them could be astronomers. I especially want the female students and students who are underrepresented minorities to know that we are working to make our field more supportive. There is absolutely no reason why they can’t be astronomers!
Hannah: I just want them to be excited about it, and I want them to know that even though they don’t learn too much about space in school, it doesn’t mean it’s just for older kids. But mostly I hope they left wanting to know more about space.
John: This applies to all branches of science, astronomy included: I think one of the problems students face with approaching science is that it seems very tough. I want elementary school students to know that the “toughness” is a barrier that any of them can breach if they put the time in, and the reward on the other side is some of the most amazing things anyone will ever see.
7) What advice would you give a student considering a service-learning course?
Hannah: Do it! I had a really great time, and it was nice to give a presentation and feel like the kids really enjoyed it. Even if your course didn’t involve teaching kids, I’d still recommend it. I think it’s a great idea for Wes students to engage with the Middletown community like that.
John: Remember that the core principles apply no matter which group you’re working with. For example, don’t overlook teaching elementary school students, because much of what you’re doing will apply to teaching college students, professionals, and even peers: you’re coming from a position of privilege and trying to level the field, and many of the useful techniques hold true for all of these folks.
8) Anything else you would like to add?
John: I was a bit skeptical about coming into this class and learning anything new about teaching because I’ve been teaching for nine years. I learned plenty, which reinforces in my mind the need to continue growing.
Hannah: Space is awesome. Take an astronomy class here. You won’t regret it. There’s some great non-major courses, and space is the coolest thing ever. Plus, you’ll probably get to look at things through one of the telescopes, and that is absolutely amazing.
The Astronomy Department offers this course every year. It alternates between pedagogy for children and pedagogy for adults. That means next year students will work on public educational programs for adults.