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Monthly Archives: July 2015

And with that, camp has come to a conclusion.

 

My reflections on camp will be extensive following our public presentations on Monday. There’s still a lot of work to be done in an effort to wrap things up. I cannot believe how quickly camp came and went. I learned a lot from the campers and certainly a lot of the theory behind teaching. While I have qualms about some of the theory and its usefulness and practicality, the lesson plans were the most excellent resources for getting all of our thoughts out onto invisible paper (scroll down if you don’t understand this reference to Google Docs).

On Monday, we’ll have our factor map, news presentation, and bacterial interviews ready to present to the whole camp. I can’t wait to see it all come together for all of their peers at Freedom School!

3387189144_98849a62ac_oWhat’s one thing you’ll never be able to stop or get back? Time. What I’d do for a couple of extra hours in the day to perfect a lesson plan or come up with a more inventive idea for an activity.

I’ve struggled in many different aspects of camp. I’m used to teaching physics and environmental science is well beyond my comfort zone. I have had a hard time keeping the campers engaged because I have had a hard time staying engaged. I have had a hard time communicating because we are all on different wavelengths and levels of organization.

The exhaustion level set in weeks ago, but there’s only one day left before presentations. The way things have come together has been disorganized and unpredictable, but somehow beautiful and elegant in a museum-esque presentation. I cannot wait to see how it all wraps up tomorrow!

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One of my favorite TV shows is Grey’s Anatomy, from which the above quote is pulled. Today was a day full of varying levels of confrontation. I was able to maintain a level head in camp for the most part, but then I got in an argument with my housemate for about an hour and a half. That went until about 8PM. Then I was going to grab dinner with other friends who I proceeded to argue with because I had homework to finish and the Distillery looked packed from the outside. I suggested somewhere else after I had taken the time to go pick them all up, but they insisted on waiting and didn’t want to go anywhere else. Well, confrontation round 3 over the span of 8 hours. My level of irritation says I had a terrible day, but this is certainly not what a terrible day is. Today was a day to come up with some more arrows.

The heart of all of my confrontation today was a lack of communication in varying degrees. The importance of communication in science cannot be overstressed – we communicate amongst the scientific community, we communicate our results in written form, and we communicate what we know to future generations of scientists. How we communicate is crucial to our well-being and ability to thrive and perform well. A lack of communication can be detrimental – whether it be an unwarranted interruption of a discussion or a blowout about how to be a better friend.

Camp was chaotic the entire morning – the movement from Hutch to Goergen set the Blue Team back about 8 minutes with factor mapping which must be accounted for now in the lesson plan. The switching of the groups was made as smooth as possible, and I must commend the people in charge of this (big plus there). The unfortunate thing about the long distance switch was the difficulty in getting the campers to settle and focus on something that wasn’t as hands-on as bacteria counting or microscope using. The opener for the day (The Great Wind Blows) was engaging for many campers and at least half the blue team wanted to play more. The collaboration that we instilled in the morning made campers realize we are still one big scientific community, aside from the Color War. The on-campus interviews engaged everyone and have led to the manner in which we will be presenting all of our data.

Today was not a terrible day. Today was a day about learning lessons in communication and encountering more stumbling blocks that only strengthen my developing ability to be prepared for anything.

 

Following a strong day 1 comes a rocky day 2, which, while warned about, burned a bit more than anticipated (not literally either because of the sunburns I have acquired in an effort to even out the H2O sun tattoo that has since disappeared).

I’m used to being the best teaching assistant (TA) in the physics and astronomy department. My methods of explaining things are unrivaled, and my ability to convey information and make it exciting has been referred to as remarkably spectacular. Over the past year and a half, I have been the person in charge of ensuring all students have my heart and soul in teaching them astronomy. Additionally, I’ve held 3 other positions in TA-ing physics courses. These have never been jobs I take lightly and I always strive to come up with the best explanations for things as humanly possible. I am engaging and ask all the right questions to explain things to students in a meaningful way. I am diligent in discovering pitfalls of misunderstanding that students frequently fall into. Out of over 450 response of TA evaluations, my average is a 4.93/5. I won the undergraduate teaching award for the department and the Janet Fogg prize – a prize that is given to one graduating senior that has shown the most commitment to the well being of all members of the physics and astronomy community and has gone above and beyond in his or her dedicated community service to ensuring the success of all members of the department. I have faced stumbling blocks that were quickly resolvable in astronomy and in physics because I have been so organized and prepared. I am an excellent teacher and have tangible proof to wave at anyone who disbelieves this statement.

Why today, then, have I never felt as defeated as I did in all of my going on three years of teaching experience?

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My thought process is not linear, but my organization is often terrifyingly rigid. My calendar is color coordinated. As are my 17 pairs of sneakers, my clothes in my drawers, and my hangable clothes (after they are sorted by hoodies, zip ups, dresses, etc.). My apps on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac are all alphabetized, as are my 50+ video games. When there aren’t stacks of paper on my desk, my supplies are organized and separated with a ruler such that everything is straight and properly spaced. When I am organized, things go swimmingly. When my organization is thrown out of whack, I feel defeated and like I’ve lost control over something I know I’m too good at controlling.

 

***BORED? Kern Type***

 

Today was a day of disorder and chaos, but somehow the campers were able to adjust to it. In this way, they were an inspiration to me. They were there to learn and couldn’t care less about my obsessive organization. They adjusted better than I could have ever imagined. Had they not, I think I’d be licking my wounds for much longer. They certainly deserve a large plus for today. They’ve definitely got this adjustment thing down really well – something they inadvertently taught me today.

 

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Broke safety rule of not wearing sunscreen – repercussion is H20 being inscribed on my skin by the sun.

The first day of camp was finally here and gone in what felt like about 15-20 minutes, even though it was more like 3.5 hours. The team morale increased significantly once we got them really excited – a huge plus for the day was that they were coming up with their own chants for blue team.

Another really big plus that we had is that everyone felt comfortable asking questions and sharing their observations. This allowed for much collaboration amongst the team – the ideal goal of day 1 was satisfied. All of the campers were also very willing to engage in all the activities we’d listed as potential stumbling blocks we’d encounter – whether they’d be against the weather report, going into the water, etc. But they were all ecstatic to do both these things (especially the weather report which is easily the best thing ever).

A big arrow that we have for our team is better materials management and cleaning up the mess we make. Many of the students left pipette wrappers, whirl-pak bags, gloves, and tools strewn across the gazebo. The blue team cohort must be cognizant of respecting the space we share with fellow beach goers, and Sharon and I must emphasize this more when we are using those material again tomorrow.

The biggest arrow of all is to get myself to talk more. Sharon is an excellent leader and I need to interrupt her more 🙂

The problem with Google Docs is that sometimes I am unaware of just how many things I have to fill out and take care of. I think of it as being invisible paperwork – I know it really, really, REALLY needs to be done, but there aren’t stacks of things in my face screaming at me to be completed.

That’s the nice thing about technology, though, right? The fact that I don’t have stacks of poor dead trees strewn across my desk. I don’t have to worry that my pen is out of ink and can’t take notes – I can takes notes on my iPad instead. I don’t have to worry about making a table perfectly with a ruler and a pencil. I don’t have to enumerate things myself or wear down my eraser when I want to get rid of an idea in a cell of a table. It’s all right there for me in a Google Doc. The only thing missing is that Google Docs won’t actually write my lesson plan for me (i.e., I have to do the hard part).

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There’s a lot more preparation for camp than I originally anticipated. Environmental science is one of my weaker sciences, and so I have struggled with coming up with things to engage students in a science I have never been engaged in myself. I of course find the topic fascinating now that it sounds so awesome what we’ll be able to do for the week, but I’m used to showing people how awesome supernovae are and coding simulations for how fluids flow when they have electric fields applied to them. How do I get people excited about a science I have a lack of experience in?

This is where technology has been fantastic. I’ve gotten to throw ideas around with the cohort about what kinds of different things they are doing. Sharon is also the brilliant idea machine, and so we’ve been able to come up with quite a few clever things to keep students engaged at camp. So while the invisible paperwork continues to pile up, I am so excited to see how some of it will start implementing itself during camp week. Hopefully that’s something you’ll stay tuned for! Luckily, it’s just a click away on my blog page as opposed to me printing something out for one to read and adding to one’s visible paperwork.

BH_LMCOn Friday, I had the pleasure of teaching 16 female high school sophomores and juniors about black holes and their role in astrophysics. When I say “their”, I am intentionally ambiguous – I wanted to both tell them the role that black holes played in an astrophysical setting, but I also wanted to encourage them to ask many questions about things that seemed wild about the topic, thus contributing to furthering the knowledge and information we have regarding astrophysics. I referred to them multiple time as scientists, rather than telling them they could be able to answer these questions if they were scientists.

I started out by telling them about myself, my background, and my interests. I gave them background information about gravitational force and basics about black holes. Once I felt that I’d given them enough information, I wanted to to engage them in an activity to break up sitting and listening to me talk.

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The difficulty with astronomy is a lack of feasible labs – I can’t say “here’s a star! Analyze it!” like I could a solvent in chemistry. However, I have a workable setup for an activity to demonstrate space curvature that black hole gravitational fields cause. The lab involves a hula hoop with a sheet over it and rubber banded so that the sheet doesn’t slide, a cantaloupe, and a bunch of gumballs. The cantaloupe is representative of the singularity of a black hole – the point in which all of the mass is concentrated at. The objective was to put the cantaloupe in the middle and throw the gumballs onto the curved sheet. The gumballs follow a circular trajectory and fall to collect near the cantaloupe. The gravitational field of the cantaloupe is so strong that the gumballs will not be able to escape – this is similar to an actual black hole and the trap that it ensnares any object in – even light. I ask them questions to get them to this point – do you think the gumballs would be able to get out of the that pull? Why do you think they got dragged there anyway? Why did they fall in a circular pattern as opposed to a straight path? Of course these questions got them very interested in the effects they’d simulated. A very successful part of the experiment is when I asked for volunteers – more than half the class came up and wanted to participate (good thing I had enough gumballs). I attributed this to them being very bright girls and me being able to introduce the information in a way that made them more curious to come up and participate in a way that seemed so trivial, but certainly piqued their curiosity.

Continuing through the lecture, I wanted to try and do something else with them. I had introduced a few equations, particularly the equation for the Schwarzschild radius – the radius of a black hole. Based on the equation, we made black holes that were the mass of the earth and the mass of the sun. I asked them – how big in radius do you think they’ll be? Slews of answers came about, but no one imagined that a black hole with the mass of the earth would be the same size as a grape, and that a black hole the mass of the sun would have a radius of 1.84 miles. This shocked them, and then they asked so many more questions because they were very intrigued – how could something so dense exist? And do they actually exist in space? How are we supposed to find invisible grapes in infinite space?

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By the end of the lecture, I had a significant amount of questions that were thrown my way. While I answered as many questions as I was able to, many of their questions were well above the scope of my knowledge, and my response was typically something like “that’s an excellent research question that you could certainly look further into. Many scientists like you have asked that question, and it’s really interesting and you should definitely learn as much as you can about it if it interests you.”

I gave a similar lecture last year, but this year had a lot more meaning to me. Jo Ann joined the lecture, and I felt more personally invested in utilizing the techniques I’d learned in 486 thus far. Implementing these techniques turned out to be hugely successful.

 

 

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In my life outside of the EDU 486 classroom, I work anywhere from 60-70 hours a week between two jobs. My favorite of the two jobs is tutoring. I work with pre-medical students who are taking self-paced physics over the summer. Self-paced physics involves completing a problem set to show mastery of a given topic, and then taking a 2-3 problem quiz on said topic. For physics I, there were 13 topics, ranging from kinematics to fluids and waves. For physics II, there are 18 topics, ranging from Coulomb’s law through all of electromagnetism, to quantum mechanics, optics, and particle physics. One of my students is a bright young girl who performs very well and strives to understand each topic thoroughly from its fundamentals. There was a point in time that I told this girl how impressed I was with her ambition to understand the topics so deeply: “Though you may think you don’t like the material, and I understand if that is the case – physics isn’t for everyone – you have a true understanding of the concepts that most pre-med students don’t have. You seem to enjoy when we are discussing the topics. At some point in our sessions, you will make a quirky, nerdy physics joke because of all the ones that I have made. At that point, I think you’ll realize how much you actually get this stuff.” This moment came about last night.

We were discussing inductance and a charge being induced through an LC circuit. She was initially confused by the introduction of a differential equation into a circuit problem. I broke down the reasoning for her, and said something along the lines that “the system has the capacity to hold charge, as a current was induced through the system, and you know that a current is just moving charges.” I’m not sure how much of what I said actually sunk in, because her immediate reply was, “Ha! Capacity. Capacitance. I get it. Capacitors have the capacity to store charge. I see what you did there.” My choice of wording was entirely unintentional, and the fact that she came up with this pun on her own brought the biggest smile to my face and I replied: “I told you one day that you’d make a joke like that because of all the tutoring we do together. Look what you just said.”

Taking introductory physics for this person certainly has not changed her career goals, but it certainly has given her an appreciation of the science. Her and I have been working together since the last week of May, and her appreciation for physics has exponentially increased since then. She was previously meeting with another tutor that she was unsatisfied with and has attributed much of the interest to my assisting her. This of course makes me ecstatic, but also allows me to reflect on the role of influence anyone can play in science.

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How do we make science interesting enough to young people such that the pursuit to study it continues? It is all about our influence on people – all of us at some point were influenced by some source – whether it be a teacher, parent, academic resource, etc. – and so this influence must be powerful enough to truly spark interest. At APK, Sharon thought it would be a good idea to start with a chant to get the students engaged. The idea was brilliant, and appealed to many of the students. We seemed excited and fun and ready to teach them all about science. This is much more positively influential than if we had perhaps just sat them down and told them to inspect the water. We approached starting to learn science in an interactive way, and that may have had a positive influence on them.

I have been in multiple settings in which have had an influence on students. In the past 2 years, I’ve held 9 positions as a teaching assistant at UR. The first one was a semi-quantitative course on black holes, relativity, and the big bang universe. In this course, I had a freshman who was majoring in political science at the time, but loved astronomy. I played on this interest of his to the point that I was able to show him the true potential he had to be a successful astronomer in the future. I have since had him for 2 other astronomy classes, as he has dropped the political science major and switched to astrophysics. He attributes much of this switch to my ability to show him that he could truly be successful in the field and awakening the interest he had in it.

Based on the experience I just discussed, a lot of the influence has to come from compassion. Another TA may not have been as invested in learning students’ genuine interests – they may not have continued to make the material as interesting as possible and have multiple discussions outside of class with this student, as I did. If it is possible to reshape the mind of a college student, we as future science educators need to ensure we can shape the minds of those whose minds have yet to be made up about what they want to do in the future.

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This allows me to think about how I want to approach camp – if I’m apprehensive about going in the water as a leader, how will others actually be interested? Why would that want to go into the water if I don’t? This would be a pretty negative influence on the students, and could diminish a lot of their interest in environmental science. But if I come across as being very interested in what’s in the water, the interest will instill and follow into the students. It will reinforce their pursuit to be scientists. So when I think science is cool and try to convey it to others as such, and then they end up thinking it’s also cool, well, I just have to think to myself: “I hate (read: love) to say I told you so.”

TL;DR: If I seem like I’m wildly interested in science and make it seem like the most exciting thing ever, others will follow. 5 seconds of my attitude can change a lifetime of interest for a young student. That’s the power of influence. Imagine that.

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For those of you that have not seen blk. water, here it is! Props to group leader Sharon for volunteering to drink this one as opposed to the clear one in front of the kids for APK 🙂

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One of the biggest struggles having started the Get Real! Science program has been the amount of reading that comes with the course. Having an astrophysics background, I’m used to lengthy problem sets and five hour midterms. While I certainly do not (yet) miss slamming my pencil down in frustration over silly algebra mistakes that could set me back hours, I’ve always been a bit apprehensive when homework involves reading rather than solving problems. I eventually complete reading all of what’s assigned, but it certainly feels like it takes me longer than a problem set would. Unlike a problem set, after finishing the readings, sometimes I’ll feel I haven’t quite absorbed all of the concepts I could have – something feels like it’s missing. Sure, I’ve been able to formulate my opinions and come up with something meaningful to say, but have a truly read all I can read from these passages? If there are 3 assigned readings for the day, by the time I get to the third one, many of the ideas, while thoughtful and insightful, become slightly repetitive statements presented in a different way – “John walks the dog” versus “The dog is walked by John” (perhaps not that trivial, but you get the idea). We discuss “listening pitfalls” relatively frequently during class. At times, I will see myself falling into “reading pitfalls.” This sort of thing got me thinking about the pedagogy of teaching in a science classroom – how many times have students just been told to write terms out of a book or just silently read the chapter?

Inside the classroom, the learning that happens should be fun, as is in EDU 486. Outside, it is of course necessary to have some form of assessment to ensure students are properly learning the material, again, as is in EDU 486. But inner city school teachers are often guilty of giving students rote assignments such as silently reading or writing terms (I can’t tell you how many times I had to write out the steps of the citric acid cycle throughout my middle and high school careers). Some teachers do this to busy students, especially those whom they feel are problematic, sort of as a way of keeping them quiet for a brief period of time. But with that sort of logic, how can these students be inspired by science? Surely not many have been inspired just by sitting down and reading a textbook.

Science must be taught in an interesting way. Modeling seems to be the theme of interest in engaging students in science. On Wednesday (today), we looked at different lab simulations. The one that my team of physicists and chemists looked at was on buoyancy.

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The lab was simplistic, yet showed enough such that an every day user could understand that things of different chemical composition react differently in fluids of different densities. A downfall of the simulation was certainly the number-intensive display (a true physicist’s worst nightmare) further exacerbated by a lack of conceptual explanation. However, such a simulation would be perfect for introducing the concept of buoyancy to a group of students learning about physics – the educator can provide the students with this simulation for them to get thoroughly engaged, and can then explain the theory behind buoyancy.

How do educators step away from the traditional textbook learning and develop something more excellent? The simulation model is a perfect example of how to get students engaged, but there are of course limitations on technology in schools, especially schools of high need districts. The integration of this kind of simulation could be more practical – one could actually have containers of different fluids (oil, water, honey, cornstarch, etc.) and blocks of different material (wood, styrofoam, brick, etc.) and have students move from station to station, weighing the block outside of the container and then measuring its weight inside the container of fluid. This would be both mentally and physically engaging for students, all while eliminating the costly need for multiple computers.

Science is fascinating and the fascination it exemplifies cannot be conveyed to a student by saying “here; read 30 pages about the differences between each of the planets in the solar system.” The real excitement from learning about the solar system is from the styrofoam ball models that allowed you to put a giant red spot on Jupiter and rings around Saturn and visually understand the differences between the planets. While reading is important, and we can certainly get lost in the amount of reading in a master’s course, the goal is to enrich oneself in the theory such that amazing practices of inspiring science can ensue. Such a movement can hopefully happen throughout all schools across the world, and certainly these practices are being taught to next generation science teachers. The community of science teachers has probably improved since my days as a freshman in high school almost 9 years ago. Back then, I vividly remember the dreaded “overhead projector” that we’d all sit silently in our desks and copy notes from. I remember one day learning about the circulatory system and thinking, “it’d be way cooler if I just built a model of the human heart that I could have a pump for and watch the blood flow through” while the teacher read the words verbatim off of the projector. If that’s not the definition of the ultimate listening pitfall, I’m not sure what is.