Informal Education

One of the ways I enjoy engaging community is through informal education, such as volunteering in public educational outreach. This includes sharing observational aspects of astronomy through telescope viewing and planetarium presentations. For example, during the 2017 total solar eclipse visible from my residence in Nashville, I organized a public viewing using my telescope and a solar filter in a neighborhood park.

Sharing views of the impending 2017 total solar eclipse with Nashville neighbors

Another special event to me was working with my colleagues in the Department of Physics at the University of Alaska Anchorage to make a large public viewing event of the Venus transit of the Sun in 2012 (cover photo).

I also previously and presently enjoy(ed) teaching observational astronomy, astronomy history, and celestial folklore to planetarium audiences across the world, including regular presentations at the…

  • Stardome observatory in Auckland, New Zealand (2004, mechanical)
  • Albert Einstein planetarium in the National Air & Space Museum (2006, mechanical)
  • Charles F. Hagar planetarium at San Francisco State University (2006 – 2010, mechanical), and
  • University of Alaska Anchorage Planetarium (2010 – 2013, digital use of Starry Night, DigitalSky, and GIS)
  • Star Lab (portable), Penn State Center for Science Outreach Exploration-U events (January 2019 - present)
  • Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics Planetarium (March 2019 - present)

Formal Education

My primary formal education experience, involving teaching on semesterly bases and assigning grades, has included

  • introductory astronomy for non majors in labs, lecture, and online (2006 – 2013, 2019)
  • physics and chemistry labs for education majors, (2010 – 2013)
  • introductory statistics (2017 – 2018)

Instruction of math and science at the introductory level, or at the level that is oft-stated as the “general public”, is delightful to me because of how it introduces differing sets of normative knowledges and practices used by statisticians and sciences respectively. Rather than teach these disciplines and their methods as producing truths or universals, I aim to describe how they are constructed to produce particular understandings, and not others. To me, this instructional approach regards an ethical stance that values multiple forms of knowing and knowledge-generation. As a doctorate of methodologies who has traversed scientific, social science, and humanities in my inquiry, I am aware of the high stakes involved in valuing some approaches and not others, which leads to privileging and funding of some disciplinary inquiries and not others. My approach to instruction, therefore, is connective, in its enabling students to consider how differing frames (or methods) are informed by different logics and values, and what is missed when only some forms of inquiry are considered “valid” or comprehensible.

My valuing of multiple forms of knowledge generation flows alongside my valuing the learning of every student in my classroom. During my first semesters of teaching at the university level, I participated in Dr. Kimberly Tanner’s courses on teaching science equitably. These courses introduced me to effects of racial, cultural, and gender biasing on learning including stereotype threat, the imposter syndrome, and white privilege. At the same time, I was introduced to and required to enact modes of instruction aimed at inclusivity, including backward design, the 5E model, and the use of multiple modes of assessment. I was also required to research the equity of my spatial location and attention to different persons and places in the classroom. In this instruction, I became aware of how my motion and interaction with my students either re-inscribed social biasing toward some learners, or did not.

As a case example of how I have recently re-worked my instruction toward valuing of all students, I share with you about my changing approaches toward the instruction of statistics during the 2017 – 18 academic year. First, a little history of my own studies in statistics: I had taken introductory statistics at a community college more than ten years prior. This course had been in delivered in a lecture-style format, and most of my learning came from my pouring over the textbook at home and the computation of many problems. After my Master’s, and my doctoral studies, I took a number of additional statistics courses, sometimes in statistics departments, sometimes in psychology, and sometimes in education, to gain a broad view of its disciplinary uses. Because of the intellectual stimulation I had from my later statistics learning, and because of my care for undergraduate teaching for all students, including those afraid of math, I was excited when I was offered the opportunity to teach introductory statistics to 150 students (3-classes) during the Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 semesters.

As a graduate teaching assistant, I was given a set of Powerpoints, short exemplary daily worksheets, a book, and versions of previous tests to teach 50-students per class introductory statistics concepts and computation via paper and pencil. This meant that my materials were primarily lecture-oriented: any instruction regarding the study of statistics as a form of inquiry different from other forms of inquiry, and the use of multiple modes of assessment would have to be developed fully on my own terms.

Suffice it to say, the first semester was one of my hardest teaching experiences ever. The classroom was separated into four long lines of desks with no spaces in between. I had imagined having students working in small groups all semester, but partly because of what I interpret as both spatial and social constraints, I experienced resistance to this instructional approach. Further, in my one-on-one conversations with students, I learned that some students had no familiarity with the meaning of “face cards” or “suits” regarding a deck of cards, of which many problems in the book and worksheets made use (and indicating to me that there was a new bias toward which I must become attuned as an instructor – generational bias). I was not supporting student learning in modes that mattered to me.

The next semester I came prepared to address the problems that haunted me the previous semester. I divided the classroom into tables at which groups of three could sit (see image above), with assigned seating. Groups were reassigned three times throughout the semester, partly to develop classroom community, and partly to make present that ‘every student counts’ – participation mattered – not just to me, but to their group. I threw out my standard ‘deck of cards’ problems, and had students use tactiles to compute probabilities: rolling dice and picking colored cards out of decks of four colors. I had four assessment “weeks” in which students took the same assessment except with modified numbers, 3 times: once individually, once as a take-home, and once in class in their group, attaining the average of the three scores as their final assessment group. Giving students these second (and third) chances at assessment has been demonstrated to improve student morale, in education research more broadly, and I definitely felt it with my students that term. Finally, I had my students read about the differences and similarities between disciplinary studies in science and statistics by mapping out these approaches as a class. My surveying students on my new instructional approaches made present to me just how much classroom community can support learning: “Sometimes I didn’t hear what you had said, and I liked being able to ask my group members.” “My group members can restate things you say in language I can understand.” “I liked being able to check answers with my neighbor.” “The three assessments helped me a lot. I felt like I really got it by the end.”

My colleague, Josh Corlew, and I have written about our explorations in ethical entanglements involved in teaching and learning, and you can read a conference paper we wrote regarding Relational Flourishing in Education here: wooten-corlew-sepes-2019