#eqjp, a teachable moment

In my current assignment through the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative in Physics and Astronomy at UBC, I’m working closely with a senior astronomy professor to help him better teach his general-education “Astro 101” course. It’s a mixture of providing resources, mentoring, helping him clarify what he wants the students to learn, and coaxing (sometimes dragging – he’s a great sport!) his teaching to a learner-centered approach.

Today was supposed to be the first class in the last, big section of the course, comparative planetology. That is, the characteristics of the planets and other bodies in our Solar System and, more importantly, what their similarities and differences tell us about the formation of Solar System some 4.5 billion years ago. Traditionally, one follows the textbook’s lead. Chapter 10: Mercury. Chapter 11: Venus,… Chapter 15: Saturn,… Chapter 20: Other Crap, Chapter 21: [finally!] Formation. And by this time, nobody remembers Mercury, Venus, or gives a damn. I’m glad to say we long ago scrapped that approach and instead, focus on the gathering and analyzing the evidence that points to a single formation event. Our learning goal states that a student will be able to

deduce from patterns and properties of the planets, moons, asteroids and other bodies that the Solar System had a single formation event.

Where was I? Oh, right, teachable moment.

Last night (March 10), there was a massive earthquake in Japan. Magnitude 8.9, one of the biggest earthquakes recorded. The ensuing tsunami(s) devastated parts of Japan. I pay attention to these things, perhaps more than others, because my home, Vancouver, is on the list of places expecting The Big One. And we can be hit by tsunamis caused by earthquakes around the ring of fire. Thankfully, the west coast of Canada and the U.S. were spared this time.

It occurred to me, on the bus ride to work this morning, we could use last night’s earthquake in class today. Seismic activity tells us about the structure and evolution of the Earth. Similar signs of earthquakes and volcanoes on other planets, or lack thereof, tell us about their structure and evolution. Not seeing volcanoes on a planet is just as telling as seeing them. Using the earthquake to introduce this last arc in the course would set the tone for the next month of classes: we don’t care about the exact surface temperature on Mercury or the exact density of Neptune. We care about patterns in the physical properties of the planets. And we care about how we find, collate and reconcile those patterns.

Shortly after this “A-ha!” moment, my brain countered with, “Is this a teachable moment. Or are you exploiting the earthquake because you can’t think of an interesting way to teach comparative planetology?”

So I tweeted…

…and, as usual, was overwhelmed by the quick and intelligent response of the great tweeps who follow me. Thanks @TanyaCNoel, @penmachine, @snowandscience, @cpm5280, @derekbruff, @erinleeryan, @cosmos4u. The overwhelming advice was take advantage of the teachable moment:

Good idea. Understanding is always helpful.
teachable moment. everyone’s talking about it anyway…
Definitely a teachable moment

I’m also thankful to @ptruchon for putting words to something that bothered me:

Tough one…Do some of them have family in Japan? If so, are they ok?

So, I went for it. And by went for it, I mean I decided to convince the prof to use the earthquake in today’s class. I proposed he could run the “Earth’s Changing Surface” lecture-tutorial but he decided against it. Instead, he used the earthquake to segue from “here are the 3 or 4 key patterns that support a single formation event” to “how do we know all that, anyway?” Through open questions  like, “What does the earthquake tell us about the structure of the Earth?” and “What does this picture [of Mars’ Olympus Mons] tell you about this planet?” he lead a nice discussion with the 170-or-so students in class today. Many students, men and women, from the front and the back of the lecture hall, participated.

A very successful class, in my opinion, one that demonstrated to me and himself and the students, how “agile” this prof is getting. I was proud that we were able to adapt our presentation so quickly and help the students learn about something they care about.

P.S. A special hat-tip to @cpm5280 who reminded me about that this earthquake was predicted, yes predicted, by the Super Moon wingnuts. I gave the prof a quick summary, just in case. And sure enough, at the end of class, a gaggle of students came down and asked him if he knew anything about the Moon being super-close on March 19. He hit them with a few, key scientific facts (in particular, that because gravity follows an inverse-square law, the tiny decrease in distance won’t do very much) and told them that the whole earthquake-prediction thing was, “a load of crap.” He used their language and they, like, totally got it.

About Peter Newbury

Find me on Twitter @polarisdotca

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2 Responses to #eqjp, a teachable moment

  1. Erin says:

    Awesome! A cosmologist friend had posted the wave records another friend of hers had made from the US seismograph data and it was very cool to be able to pick out by eye the different time delays and ripples from the waves that took different paths and deflections through the Earth. Of course I think it’s even cooler that you can use the slight delays and advances in wave detections at single seismometers to map the cool and hot structures of the mantle too, though the geologists think I’m weird when I stare at those maps and say that they remind me a lot of looking at the cosmic microwave background ;-)

    While the human toll in Japan is immense, this type of situation is good to also remind students that science isn’t static- sometimes science happens with one quick event which catches everyone’s attention for awhile and can give us new and interesting insights.

  2. Great post! I don’t feel it’s exploitative to discuss current events- even tragic ones- in class. To my mind, it’s more insensitive to ignore a big event. Students want to talk about an event like the earthquake, so it’s the perfect time to channel their desire to want to know more.

    Also, our job beyond teaching astronomy or physics is to create a educated public- people who can think critically about what they see and read. Clearing up the super Moon strangeness is a perfect example of this. Awesome job to you, Peter, and to your astro prof! :)

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