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Big shifts for all of us

Re-posted from My Head is in the Stars by ASP Astronomy Educator Vivian White.

Original posting date: October 10, 2014

I don’t usually teach classes like this, in so many ways. I am used to talking astronomy with the general public in short bursts, at star parties with a telescope, or doing activities at festivals, or maybe a visit to a classroom. I think that gives me some advantages and also presents some challenges. I’m used to questions from all ages and backgrounds, but rarely have much time to explain things in depth. Structuring a course over 2 weeks has given me the luxury of delving deeper into the history and exciting details of planets and stars. The biggest challenge by far has been assessing their prior knowledge. Such as…

I explained the life cycle of stars today, equating the stages to the life of a butterfly (thanks, Marni). They seemed to be following until the last few sentences. I ended with what is usually an “ahhh-ha!” moment about how all of the calcium in our bones and iron in our blood had been created by stars. All good, but no “ahhh-ha” this time. The story was great but they had never heard of these elements (or atoms at all) it turns out. Whaa-whaa.

Spontaneous telescopes

On the other hand, these guys spontaneously picked up some supplies for other classes and made telescopes, noticing when they got inverted images and testing out different combinations. Cool!

Back to the challenges. A few monks took 3 days and 4 attempts to convince that people in Australia did not have to hold on for dear life in order to stay on the planet. It required a deep look into gravity, pictures of kangaroos and penguins, mind models with dropping balls, and I’m still not sure they buy it.

Yesterday we made guesses about the timeline of earth, placing single-celled organisms, the first animals, and such on a timeline stretching back almost 5 billion years. This one gives most everyone trouble, but this is the first time I’ve seen anyone place humans as the first living thing to appear on Earth. Their completely sensible reasoning? If someone wasn’t here to observe it, how do we know it happened? They had never heard of evolution.

Earth timeline debate

So many subjects that I don’t feel prepared to teach well! I’m sure there are engaging ways to introduce evolution, the periodic table, and fusion. The new part is that they’re just not questions I usually get from adults with the reasoning skills to really understand the concepts fully, like these monks and nuns have. They are so curious, open to new ideas, and have the attention spans to really delve deeply into a subject. It’s been hard to reconcile their keen ability to grasp complex concepts with their lack of exposure to any of the basic building blocks of science. I’m making these new connections in my own head every day, thanks to them.

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