Every day I start each class by standing in the hallway greeting students as the walk into or by my classroom. There is important pedagogy with this simple act but I will talk about that in a later post. What I do want to talk about is how my astronomy class starts and I need to paint the picture where my classroom starts – in the hallway. The students pass by me as they enter the room and either say hi or talk to me about something about the class. But after greeting each other the students enter a dark class. Dark enough that my Principal once leaned past me into the class to turn on the lights when he saw students entering the class. He was slightly embarrassed when he was admonished by the students that the lights we supposed to be off. The classroom is lit only by a video projector onto the screen in the front of the room. The students cannot help but look at the screen. And on that screen is the Astronomy Picture of the Day(APOD.) I rarely have it showing the text – just the photo graces the screen. The reasons for me doing this are many-fold, but it comes down to this one fact – Astronomy is Beautiful. The students intrinsically know this, that is why they are taking the course. Their parents know this, which is why they consistently tell me that astronomy is the only class their kids talk about at home. It has nothing to do with me. I am just a means to an end. They want to know more about something so beautiful. I just get them to ask the questions by putting up a page that revels in the beauty of space exploration. I have done this since before I had a video projector. Albeit it was harder to show students the glorious photos back in the old days.
The APOD is a website which has been produced by two professional astronomers, Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell, since 1995. During that time, I have used the APOD as a teaching tool. The APODs usually are photos taken about a current event in astronomy or space research. And each photo is meticulously annotated with web resources about the topics discussed in the write up. You could not ask for a greater teaching (or learning) tool. I think I have learned almost as much from my APOD research as from any other singular source I have studied.
Almost every day students have questions about the pictures that are on the site. It becomes a contest among my students to find out as much as possible each day before class about that day’s picture. Many of my (graduated)students have written to tell me that they still use the APOD as their Home Page. The discussions often go places that were no where near my lesson plan. I don’t mind. And many times I have to say “you don’t know enough yet for me to explain that to you.” And they don’t mind. My students learn that if I say “We will talk about that topic and answer that question later” – we eventually do.
After the APOD discussion is over, I many times switch over to the Spaceweather website which compiles many different astronomical current event media. If the APOD does not strike up a discussion, a movie of the current solar prominence or Aurora Borealis photo usually will. I cannot tell you the number of conversations I have had over the current extended solar minimum I have had with my students (at their behest!)
If you teach anything about astronomy and space science and you don’t use these sites daily to inspire. You really should think it over. Yeah, the current event may have nothing to do with your current topic but why are you teaching your course anyway? Isn’t it to excite and inspire? If your students are excited, they will be motivated to learn and then it will take you only half the time to teach your “lesson plan.”
Oh and BTW, you might even get excited again about the subject.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful?