Learning Critical Thinking Through Astronomy, Week 5

I originally had one set of plans for this week but as sometimes happens, those plans changed radically. Instead of starting in on the next series of activities, we spent some time doing some formative assessment (and I’m really beginning to hate the word “assessment” because of the current political climate in which it’s (mis)used but I will continue to use it anyway) and the first large summative assessment. These assessments cover the chapter 1 (01xx) activities, of which there were seven. As usual, my suspicions were that most of the students had not dug deeply enough into the activities, if at all, outside of class. They historically tend to underestimate the amount of engagement I expect despite having articulated this on the syllabus (I’m assuming they read the syllabus). I’m still evaluating the assessments (my new term for grading them).

I did something new with the first three activities (Activity0201-Activity0103) and in the process, made a big mistake that I need to correct befor next semester. The activities in this series focus on observing shadows, shadows of identical sticks at three strategic locations (Hickory, NC in Activity0201; Cape Town, South Africa in Activity0202; and Quito, Ecuador in Activity0203). For efficiency and to promote collaboration, I assigned each activity to one third of the class with the expectation that each group will collaborate to get the necessary information for the remaining two activities from the other two groups. My big mistake was forgetting that Activity0203 requires information from the either of the first two activities. To compensate, I put the students doing Activity0203 in the somewhat unfortunate, but all to real in the actual scientific world, situation of having to rely on other “research groups” for information before they can complete their assigned tasks. Alternatively, they can just go ahead and do do the other two activities since I expect them to have that information eventually anyway. I’m just trying to make the information gathering more active, more realistic, and more fun. Seriously, though, I need to revise Activity0203 to reflect this way of doing things.

Historically, again, these initial chapter 2 activities are very slow going. All students are doing is getting the basic facts from simple observation. The facts consist of a complete description of the stick’s shadow from the various locations and detailed operational definitions of the four cardinal directions (north, south, west, and east) based on the shadow’s behavior. Sounds easy, right? It isn’t. Despite my warnings, students fail to read the directions carefully enough to get what they need from them. They sometimes agonize over words they should already know (e.g. convex, concave, etc.) and fret when I ask them to look up their meanings rather than just have me regurgitate the definitions. Most significantly, they rely on things they have been told previously in other courses at other institutions (sometimes colleges, sometimes high school) and get angry when I don’t allow them to cite on these things. I’m speaking of things like “Earth orbits Sun” and “Earth is spherical, not flat” and “Sun always rises in the east and sets in the west” and “noon is equivalent to twelve o’clock” and “a stick’s shadow always vanishes at noon every day of the year.” The first two are not allowed because we have done nothing at this point in the course to establish these “facts.” All students have and operationally “know” about at this point is what a stick’s shadow does between sunrise and sunset. I impose the following rule: If you haven’t operationally defined a given concept at this point, you are not allowed to rely on it as part of an explanation. The third is patently false by all definitions, yet it lingers as a misconception that students stubbornly refuse to shed. The fourth is subtle, and is the subject of timekeeping, which is in turn the theme of chapter 4 (for which only rough draft activities exist at this point and they’re not ready to distribute). The fifth is also patently false because if it were true, noon would never happen here in Hickory. We really are, quite literally, strating from the ground up with this material, all within the previously established framework of critical thinking from chapter 1 and the previous series of activities.

For this series of activities, students use an Easy Java Simulation app created by Todd Timberlake (Berry College) modified by me for my needs. I will eventually make it available on ComPADRE once I properly document its features.

I welcome questions, comments, and constructive feedback.


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