Podcast Episode 30: Teaching Outside the Classroom with Michael Faison

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Our guest is Michael Faison from the Yale Department of Astronomy. He teaches undergraduate classes that range from the search for extraterrestrial life to advanced radio astronomy, and he directs the Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium where he often hosts classes. Outside Yale, he gives public lectures about astronomy, astrology, and the difference between the two. In this episode we talk about the advantages of teaching outside a traditional classroom, thinking creatively about what happens during class time, and how he handles students with very different backgrounds in science and math.

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Show Notes

0:00 Intro

0:39 Introductions; astronomy vs. astrology; cosmology and cosmetology

2:40 Why teach outside a traditional classroom? Giving students hands-on telescope experience in a world where most professional research astronomers sit in front of computers.

8:05 What are the virtues of knowing how to do something by hand when it’s easily automated? e.g., arithmetic on paper vs. using a calculator

9:40 How much do you guide the students in using the telescopes? A lot in the beginning and very little by the end of the semester. Students break equipment.

12:30 More on the virtues of doing things manually when you are learning them: Programming in computer science and econometric methods in economics

13:40 Gravitiational waves! (Yes, they are a big deal) Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

16:00 A non-scientific discussion of how Doug and Michael lost their regional accents

17:50 Adapting to the room you’re assigned–Michael thought he was getting a computer lab, but instead he got Yale’s Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) classroom that has big round tables. Perfect for having students work together on a computer or a whiteboard

23:10 Continuous assessment and feedback is incredibly valuable.

24:30 Teaching high school students about the dangers (and potential benefits) of near earth asteroids

26:00 Space elevators and space fountains

27:30 Teaching students basic programming for astronomical data analysis–Might work better than teaching programming with no particular objective in mind.

29:00 Designing (or at least naming) classes that pander to undergraduates (e.g., “Sexual biology of extra-terrestrials”)

30:30 Programming skills are becoming (have become?) as important as writing. Make programming required in high school. Edward gets nostalgic about his Radio Shack computer and saving code on a cassette tape. Doug gets a little misty-eyed too.

33:10 How do you deal with students that have widely ranging backgrounds in science and math? You need to teach simultaneously at multiple levels. Sesame Street includes shapes and numbers for kids, and jokes and pop stars for the adults.

34:50 Doug: Picking a target (low, middle, high) is important, but the real challenge is meeting the needs of a wide range at the same time.

37:00 How do you handle grading with a wide range of students? Michael assigns grades in his intro classes based on completion of assignments.

38:45 Michael doesn’t think of himself as a naturally great teacher–He’s become one with lots of introspection and hard work. Like most PhD’s teaching the first class, he started by teaching at a far too advanced level.

41:00 Students might like to hear interesting material wash over them, but they don’t necessarily learn anything. It’s far better to cover less material and have students learn it.

42:00 It’s important to solve your exam problems before you give the exam.

43:40 Trying new things in the classroom is fun, but you have to pay attention to how well they work.

44:00 The value of translating ideas to a new medium, like a planetarium show

46:20 Are brands (like CS50) really that valuable? Maybe they are.

47:50 The upcoming Leitner Family Observatory podcast! Keep on eye on the Leitner website for more information.

48:10 Closing

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