How should I share materials?

[Update (9 September 2011): Finally stopped procrastin–, er, planning and did it. Follow the “Astro Labs” link at the top of the page. I’m continually adding new activities so check back periodically. Or watch for announcements on my twitter feed, @polarisdotca .]

The goal of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) is to improve undergraduate science education. The chosen method for doing that is based on 3 “pillars”:

In my position as a CWSEI Science and Teaching Learning Fellow in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, I get to spend time working on each of these pillars. Sometimes,  I flit from pillar to pillar to pillar in a single sitting, like when I’m making up a nice think-pair-share clicker question. Other times, I can spend an hour, a day, a month working on one pillar. For instance, I spent the good part of a summer working with our introductory astronomy (“Astro 101”) instructors on a set of learning goals, statements directed at the students like

[By the end of this course, you will be able to] use the geometry of the Earth, Moon and Sun to illustrate the phases of the Moon and predict the Moon’s rise and set times.

For the last couple of terms, I’ve been working closely with the Astro 101 instructors on instructional approaches to help them become more effective instructors.

But it’s hard to be an effective instructor if you don’t have good materials to work with. (No, I’m not saying good materials make you a good instructor — I’m a math grad, I know all that necessary and/or sufficient stuff.)  So I have spent considerable time in the last few years creating activities for our Astro 101 labs. These aren’t traditional, 3-hour labs. Rather, they’re 1-hour, hands-on activities run in groups of less than 40 students. Following our American friends, we call them “tutorials” even though the rest of UBC uses “tutorial” for that hour you spend with a teaching assistant going over problems on the board.

Once we’d drafted the set of learning goals for Astro 101, we selected the learning goals that would be best tackled with a hands-on activity. The Moon phases goal mentioned above, for example. Or “describe experiments or observations that would detect if space is flat, has positive or negative curvature.” Then I set about creating the activity, cycling from CWSEI pillar to pillar.

It got pretty hectic, at times. We have some large classes with the students split into 5 or 6 tutorial sections each week. I’d get the activity ready and create a set of worksheets that we’d use in the Monday section. Then I’d sit in as the teaching assistants led the activity, observing the students, talking to them about how they answered the questions and talking to the teaching assistants about what worked and what didn’t. That afternoon (or night!) I’d make some changes and try version 2 on Tuesday. And repeat. Throughout the week. And then assess on the final exam. Eventually, we ended up with some, quite frankly, excellent activities. The most “mature” activities consist of

  • worksheets to guide the students through the activity
  • question sheet to assess their knowledge at the end of the activity
  • equipment
  • detailed guide for the teaching assistants, including how to set up the equipment, how to facilitate the activity, suggestions for prompts and Socratic-style questions to guide the students, solutions to the assessment
  • in some cases, materials for adapting the activity for use in the classroom
  • exam questions that assess the selected learning goal(s)

It’s taken several years to get here. And it’s time to visit the fourth CWSEI pillar:

disseminate what works

Yes, it’s time to share the activities. A couple of them are already out there, like the human orrery activity [with video] or a concept-mapping activity that will appear in the proceedings of Cosmos in the Classroom 2010. But what about the rest? How do I share them with the community of astronomy educators which includes, I believe

  • post-secondary Astro 101 instructors
  • teaching assistants
  • lab instructors
  • K-12 teachers
  • museum/science center presenters sharing astronomy with school children and the general public
  • astronomy education researchers

I feel there are 2 major decisions to make:

1. Are they free?

I’ve got a pretty good relationship with a certain textbook publisher and I could certainly talk to them about finding a way to bundle the activities up into a workbook. But honestly, I don’t want to go that route. The CWSEI and my Department have been paying me to create these materials – and in some sense, they’re already paid for. In the spirit of standing on the shoulders of giants, I’d like to make them available to anyone who wants them. Does it mean anything if I add ” © 2011 Peter Newbury” in the footer. Or is that “© 2011 UBC”? No, the intellectual property policies at UBC are pretty clear it belongs to me:

Copyright and other intellectual property rights to scholarly and literary works—including books, lecture notes, laboratory manuals [my emphasis], artifacts, visual art and music—produced by those connected with the University belong to the individuals involved.

Or maybe I tag them with a Creative Commons license to use, adapt but give credit where credit is due.

2. What format?

Full disclosure, right here, right now: These materials are written in LaTeX and I will not, I repeat not, Not, NOT re-write them in MS-frickin-Word. One more auto-format because apparently I’m stupid and it knows what I want and I’m going to tear out my hard-drive. And sorry, I don’t know iPages or whatever that Apple iProgram is iCalled.  Plus, I get such a geek thrill out turning this

% Jupiter orbit
t cos 5.2 mul t 9 mul cos 1.5 mul add
t sin 5.2 mul t 9 mul sin 1.5 mul add}

into this [update 7 June 2011: here’s the full .tex file]

Jupiter's spirograph orbit comes from one line of sweet, LaTeX PSTricks code.

So here’s what I’m thinking: for each activity, I’ll make available the .tex files, .eps figures, other graphics and PDFs which are ready-to-use but can’t (easily) be edited. I could add a new page to this WP blog and distribute them there.

What would work for you?

Like the heading asks, what would work for you? Something I suggested above? Or maybe something entirely different? Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts, suggestions, recommendations, requests,…

About Peter Newbury

Find me on Twitter @polarisdotca

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4 Responses to How should I share materials?

  1. Paul Martenis says:

    Kudos to you. You’ve packaged up whole astro experiences, from lead-in material to assessments. And you edited them after you watched somebody else implement them. You’ve done a ton of work, and they sure sound good.
    If you are so generous as to post them for free on your blog, I know I would download the files as fast as my little wifi legs will tote them, and I would be very grateful. I’m always looking for new stuff to do with my high school astronomy class.

    • Thanks, Paul. I’m hoping to get them distributed this summer (if I go the CC route). Our Astro101 audience are non-Science students which typically means they have little scientific or mathematical background. That’s okay, though, because it’s what we expect and plan for. So, I think many of these activities could be easily adapted to a high school class. Even the equipment is mostly inexpensive, from balloons to styrofoam balls to play-doh. Stay tuned!

  2. carrie says:

    Peter, you are my hero! It would be great to be able to download the materials as pdfs and I would definitely take advantage of this- crediting you and your peers, of course! I’m looking forward to trying out the human orrery activity. Just saw an article in Science Daily about learning being tied to physical movement. :)

    And I am totally with you about LaTeX. It is the right thing.

    • Me, the hero? You’re the one who’s chosen to take the more difficult route of learning how to teach astronomy. It’s passionate instructors like you for whom I’m writing these materials. In my books, you’re the hero!

      Now, speaking of the human orrery (be sure to watch the video!), check out “kinesthetic astronomy” some time. If you have any questions, I’m sure @slater_steph would be happy to help.

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