One of the unfortunate things about working at a regional undergraduate institution is that we don’t get a lot of external visitors to pass through. I remember my days back on campuses like Penn State and the University of Colorado where it seemed like some famous scientist, historian, politician, etc. was on campus to give a talk on a regular basis. At a smaller university we don’t have such a luxury. That’s why when former NASA astronaut Barbara Morgan made a visit to Coastal Carolina University this week it was a real treat.
Barbara Morgan‘s story is, by itself, inspirational. She started her relationship with NASA back in the 1980′s when she took part in NASA’s Teacher in Space program. At that time she was selected as the first alternative to Christa McAuliffe who was suppose to be the first teacher in space. Unfortunately McAuliffe was one of the seven crew members aboard Challenger when it disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean. Following the Challenge disaster NASA suspended the Teacher in Space program. At this time Morgan return to being an elementary teacher but also continued to work with NASA’s Education Office.
Toward the end of 2002 then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe announced that Barbara Morgan was assigned to an upcoming Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station. With this selection and the eventual successful completion of the mission, Morgan became the first educator to travel to space. Although her original start with NASA and her continued involvement with program centered around her career as a teacher, her role on the mission was as a mission specialist. There is some confusion over this issue because a number of press releases made reference to her position as a “Mission Specialist Educator” or and “Educator Astronaut” even though she went through the regular astronaut training, not the Educator Astronaut Project, the successor to the Teachers in Space program. Regardless, it’s amazing the commitment Morgan demonstrated over the years to fulfill a dream to travel to space and to be one of the select few people that have had the opportunity to see the Earth from the outside looking in.
It was Barbara Morgan’s unique perspective and career path that she shared with us during her visit. During an afternoon open Q&A session students and faculty had the opportunity to ask questions on anything they liked. We heard everything from the emotional roller coaster going into the launch, to what’s NASA procedures if someone is hurt during a Space Shuttle mission. (Technically the student asked what they would do if someone died while in space.)
During an evening public talk entitled “The Sky is No Limit” she described in detailed what the mission entailed and some of the subtle points that we don’t usually think about when we (non-astronaut type) consider space traveling. As an astronomer I’ve heard stories here and there about what it’s like to be in space, but I never realized some of the demands placed on these individuals. In listening to Barbara’s descriptions I realized that in seven people you need to have not only mission specific talents, but you also need pilots, space walkers, medics, communication specialists, and even janitors to name a few. Moreover, there needs to be redundancies so multiple people need to be trained in medical emergencies. Also, don’t forget that simple tasks on Earth, like applying a band-aid, have all kinds of new challenges in space. Ultimately this means, to be an astronaut requires individuals that are jacks of all trades.
What impressed me the most about Barbara’s presentations is the inspiration she brought to the students. During her talks she mentioned multiple opportunities for students to get involved with NASA, not just to be astronauts, but just to be involved. I heard from multiple students afterward about their piqued interests that they’re now off to pursue. As a faculty member I also learned about a few avenues for support we can offer to our students. Programs such as the Microgravity University which gives students the opportunity to propose and eventually perform experiments in a microgravity environment. This means flying on the Vomit Comet!
In short, Barbara Morgan’s visit was well received and a great opportunity for our undergraduate students to interact directly with a former astronaut. More importantly, it was an inspirational moment for those that took part and one I’m sure they won’t forget.
There’s a television commercial currently in circulation by Gillette for their Fusion ProGlide Razor. The product isn’t what’s important here. What’s more at issue is the commercial ends with the announcer stating that it “turns skeptics into believers”.
The intent of the catch-phrase is obvious. For a product, any product, the statement “turns skeptics into believers” would imply that once someone uses the item, the abilities of the product is apparent enough to overcome any doubt someone may have of its capabilities. But that’s a mouth full to say.
Let’s now consider the two key nouns in the catch-phrase: skeptic and believer. In everyday language a skeptic is an individual who tends to question or doubt generally accepted claims. I’m sort of okay here. There are people, me included, that would like to strengthen the definition to say that a skeptic is an individual that uses supporting evidence and logic to arrive at provisional conclusions. In other words, someone who uses the scientific method to derive new knowledge. For an extended description of what a skeptic is check out A Skeptical Manifesto.
The word believer, on the other hand, tends to denote an individual that accepts a conjecture based on a limited amount of evidence. A believer could be someone with anecdotal evidence, or even an individual who ignores established ideas or corroborated observations to continue to hold onto a certain belief. A believer is often a person that claims knowledge without having the ability to produce substantiating evidence. Here’s the beginning of where I have a problem with the statement “turns skeptics into believers.”
A true skeptic uses the scientific method. They collect empirical data, characterize observations, and use logical inferences to form a testable hypothesis. If after the test, or better yet multiple tests, the hypothesis is supported a skeptic will be confident in the hypothesis and will formulate a provisional conclusion. A good skeptic’s conclusion is only as strong as the supporting evidence. The point is that skeptics do not make leaps across knowledge gaps. The everyday connotation of a believer is someone that does.
So is it really possible to convert a skeptic into a believer? From the proper usage of the words skeptic and believer it would seem that such a transformation is not very likely. An individual that holds to the skeptical ideology would not be willing to accept the suggested anecdotal evidence to formulate the conclusion that a given product is superior. At best, a skeptic would use the singular testimony as a starting point to a more thorough investigation.
Sorry Gillette. A more accurate catch-phrase would have been that the Fusion ProGlide will “turn believers into skeptics”.
Recently Coastal Carolina University, my employer, released a bunch of wallpaper designs to promote the University. Admittedly there’s some pretty cool designs, especially those that feature Chauncey the Chanticleer. There’s one particular wallpaper that really caught my attention
Of course it caught my attention. It’s astronomy related. Besides, my favorite color is purple.
Overlooking the fact that there’s no Chauncey constellation, there are a number of notable errors with this wallpaper that drive me crazy. Let’s start with the stars. If you look at a star through a telescope then it’s true that they usually have spikes radiating away from the central star. Take a look at this image of the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters).
Notice how the stars have four spikes emanating from the stars. Also, the spikes are more pronounced for the brightest stars. The origins of these spikes actually has to do with the type of telescope used to view the stars.
A reflecting telescope works by bouncing light off a larger primary mirror at the back of the telescope up to a smaller secondary mirror toward the front of the telescope. The secondary mirror is held in place by what’s called a spider. A typical spider has four vanes. Shown to the right is a typical reflecting telescope. As you look down the barrel you can see the primary mirror at the bottom, while the spider is the crosshair-looking device toward the opening. As the starlight passes through the telescope it will diffract around those vanes. In other words, the light is deflected from its ordinary path. To make a long story short, this change in path is made evident by the four diffraction spikes we see in pictures of stars, like what’s shown above for the Pleiades. The issue is more pronounced for brighter stars because more starlight is diffracted.
This brings me to my first point of contention with the wallpaper. If you look at the stars, many of them have diffraction spikes. However, diffraction spikes are an artifact of looking at stars through a telescope, specifically reflecting telescopes. The wallpaper image covers a very wide field of view, and it includes a foreground palmetto tree and grass, which altogether implies that this view does not represent what someone would see looking through a telescope. So why do some of the stars have diffraction spikes?
Problem two with the Chauncey Constellation wallpaper are the “shooting stars” seen on the left side. I purposely called them shooting stars because in the wallpaper it’s clear from the diffraction spikes that these are meant to be stars. First off, shooting stars have nothing to do with stars. They’re actually small pieces of debris that is flying around in our Solar System. Second, when a shooting star passes through our atmosphere—which is what astronomers call a meteor—it’s path is not curved like that shown in the wallpaper. It’s mostly straight with maybe a slight arc. Check out the August 16, 2010 APOD shown below, which shows a meteor shower over Quebec.
Notice how the incoming meteor trails are straight, not curved. So what’s the deal with the highly curved path of the “shooting stars” on the wallpaper?
Now for my biggest beef with the Chauncey Constellation wallpaper. Take a close look at the Moon. Inside the crescent moon you can see stars!!! This would imply that the Moon physically changed shape during the course of its lunar phase cycle. Sometimes its full. At other times it looks like a boomerang, or a semi-circle, and at yet other times a bloated semi-circle. In reality the lunar phases are due to the Moon’s position relative to the Earth and the Sun. At any moment half of the lunar surface is lit up by sunlight. Since the Moon orbits the Earth, how much of this lit half is visible to Earth observers changes. A crescent phase, like the one depicted in the wallpaper, occurs when the Moon has moved in its orbit just a bit past the point where it’s aligned with the Sun’s direction. The image to the left shows a photograph of a real crescent Moon. Notice that the dark side of the Moon is actually visible. This is due to light that has reflected off the Earth, traveled to the Moon, and returned back to the Earth for us to see—an effect known as Earthshine. More importantly it’s not transparent. In my Astro 101 class we spend a considerable amount of time discussing the lunar phases. It’s a difficult topic but I wouldn’t expect any of the students to make such a grievous error as shown in the wallpaper.
So I have to ask the question, where was I when this wallpaper was made? Why wasn’t I consulted? I know the purpose of this is particular wallpaper is to be fanciful but geez, let’s get some things right. Especially the part about the Moon.
By the way, even with it’s flaws, I’m still using this as my wallpaper on two computers and my iPad.
A new course preparation can be daunting. With each new prep there are lectures (including in-class activities!) to organize, homework assignments to write, assessment materials to find or develop, etc. During a new prep, as much as we hate to admit it, it’s really just about surviving.
On the flip side, there’s comfort in repeating a course. With a repeated course a foundation has been laid from which to build off of. In my younger days as a faculty member I was once told to expect the second version of a course to be nothing like the first. I can’t agree more. The reason being is that during the first time through you discover all kinds of ways to improve the class. It can be something as trivial as a changing homework questions, to something more extensive as restructuring the order of the material or introducing a new instructional methodology. The advantage of the second time through is that modifications are at the instructor’s discretion. There’s a transition from survival mode to a focus on improvements.
I’ve found that the key to making course improvements is taking good notes during the course. At the beginning of the semester I start with a blank spreadsheet from which I build a class-by-class schedule. Below is snapshot of the spreadsheet from my spring 2010 Astro 101 course.. (Click here for the full pdf document.)
This spreadsheet not only serves as a private roadmap for the course, but I use the last few columns to make notes on each class meeting.
The first piece of information I record is simply how long the class took. By recording the time, I have the ability to quickly decide during which courses I can deal with unexpected administrative issues. For example, last semester I volunteered the class as a test site for a new stellar diagnostic survey. Using my notes from the prior term I could quickly tell what lectures the survey would fit into.
The last column is for quick notes for next time. Some notes I’ve included are as trivial as “class went well”. More informative notes suggest needed improvements such as including a few more slides to help discuss a difficult subject, or to order more equipment for a lab. It’s also here that I suggest to myself about possible restructuring of topics. Last semester I noted to move the solar vs sidereal material from lecture 4 to lecture 8. I didn’t realize that this would be a better organization until after lecture 4 occurred, but by making a note, I knew lecture 4 would be lighter the next time I taught the course.
One thing I’ve taken to this semester, which is not shown in the above, is recording a list of needed demonstration equipment. I’m really bad about realizing in the middle of a class I forgot to grab a flashlight, or an Earth globe, or whatever.
When I first starting teaching I wasn’t as thorough in keeping notes. I was in survival mode then. But with time I’ve realized that good notes can be invaluable. I started keeping notes because so often I would come up with a great idea for an improvement but I wouldn’t write it down anywhere. When the same lecture came up again I could remember that I had an idea but couldn’t remember the specifics. Finally, I told myself to keep better records. From this the above spreadsheet approach was born. Now I use it with every class I teach, new prep or an old hat course.
By the way, if you’ve ever wondered what a professor does while students are taking an exam, in this case, I was writing a blog entry.