Tag Archives: education

AAS Astronomy Ambassadors and You

The following is cross-posted from a guest post on Astrobites, a blog that features summaries of recent papers in astronomy and astrophysics. From time to time, Astrobites contributors write about conferences, education, outreach, and other “real life” interests for astronomers. The target audience is undergraduate students in the physical sciences with an interest in research, and astronomy in particular.

Imagine you have the following sketch. Your job is to get a room full of people to accurately reproduce the sketch themselves. The caveat? Only you can see it. And you can’t show it to anybody else – you can only describe it in words.


Now, the picture is your favorite astronomy research topic, and the room full of people is the public. Or an introductory classroom. How would you do?

This is not easy stuff. If you go to graduate school in astronomy, chances are good that you will spend time teaching undergraduates in some capacity and participating at public events like observatory open houses. These activities are sometimes viewed as a waste of time by more senior researchers, and are dumped in graduate students’ laps. On the contrary – this is some of the most important work you will do. It is crucial to educate the public about science in order for our nation and species to thrive, and that is not going to happen if scientists don’t learn to reach out and share their passion.

The Astronomy Ambassadors program is one way for early-career astronomers to learn crucial outreach skills. Started in January 2013 by the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the program provides a series of workshops and resources with the goal of improving astronomers’ ability to effectively communicate with students and the public. But the benefits of being an Astronomy Ambassador don’t stop there – the techniques you learn also apply when you are discussing and presenting research to colleagues and specialists.

I am delighted to be a member of the inaugural class of Astronomy Ambassadors. Throughout the two-day workshop, we heard from experts in education and public outreach, and got the chance to try many hands-on exercises for ourselves. We worked in groups to design outreach activities that would have a lasting impact, discussed how “random acts of education and public outreach” are ineffective in the long run, and brainstormed new ways to get involved in our communities. To support this last piece, we learned strategies to seek out and stay in contact with teachers and other community leaders who are interested in hosting outreach volunteers more than once.

In the months since January, our class of Ambassadors has stayed in touch sporadically through an online forum and recorded logs of our outreach efforts. These logs showcase the different activities we have all led across the country in countless different settings, and help us see what does and doesn’t work in different situations. Together, we are working to make a real difference in science literacy.

Let’s return to the drawing exercise. What are some techniques you might use to improve the chances your audience will understand, and succeed? Based on what I learned during the Astronomy Ambassadors weekend, you might…

  • Give an overview before asking participants to start drawing
  • Provide thorough context, and repeat each instruction before moving on
  • Pay close attention to pacing – in particular, don’t go too fast
  • Have participants work independently to start, and compare their work later
  • Describe concepts in more than one way – for instance, perhaps the background landscape is an S-curve, a sine wave, a rolling hill, a snake, and a roller coaster track
  • Give a recap or review of the big picture at the end


This advice, in a general sense, can be applied in many different communication situations. And I can think of many more suggestions to add to the list! But these things don’t come naturally – you have to practice, and you have to try different strategies in different situations to see what works best. This is what being an Astronomy Ambassador is all about. Ambassadors take the next step beyond just showing up to teach or volunteer – we share science in an accessible way to make a real impact.

Do you want to be an Astronomy Ambassador? Read more and apply to attend the workshop at the January 2014 AAS meeting here.


One Astronomer’s Giant Leap

The following was originally published at Astronomy.com, and was drafted during ComSciCon, a science communication workshop for graduate students.

Astronomers are accustomed to dealing with mind-bogglingly huge distances. But for one professor in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the biggest distance to overcome can be just a few miles.

Dr. Nicole Vogt is a professor of astronomy at New Mexico State University, a land-grant university in southern New Mexico located 45 miles from El Paso, Texas. The area is largely agricultural, and many students come from nontraditional backgrounds or can get to campus only one or two days a week. Vogt teaches an introductory astronomy course that fulfills a lab science requirement for undergraduates, but students’ lives can make attendance prohibitively difficult. Some live over an hour from campus, others work a demanding job with long hours, while others have family responsibilities. When this happens, students often turn to distance education, but they come up short without a lab science.

How do you earn credit for a laboratory class without, well, attending lab? The usual answer is simple: You don’t. Vogt finds this unacceptable.

“Providing distance access to a core curriculum can broaden the participation of underrepresented groups in higher education,” she says. The problem is: How do you create lab exercises that can be completed without specialized equipment or face-to-face interactions with instructors and peers? The whole point of a science lab is hands-on learning. Reading a textbook or writing a paper just isn’t the same as gathering data and drawing conclusions.

To address this, Vogt is developing the General Education Astronomy Source (GEAS) project at New Mexico State. Essentially, GEAS is an online astronomy course with a do-it-yourself lab built in. It is specifically designed for students to work at their own pace. They can review basic math and science skills as needed while exploring current astronomy topics. Most importantly, they are free from scheduling constraints — in both location and time.

By watching General Education Astronomy Source videos, class registrants can watch other students performing experiments, like this still from the lunar cratering lab, before trying it themselves. // all photos courtesy Nicole Vogt
The GEAS project is composed of four main components: an online self-review library, a set of lab exercises with accompanying videos, audio lecture recordings, and short films featuring diverse individuals with careers in astronomy and related fields. Taken together, these elements form an interactive, hands-on experience that fulfills New Mexico State’s lab science course requirement.

Bringing a lab to the Internet is a unique challenge. To make a lab exercise accessible to distance learners, Vogt and her team began by adapting classic assignments to work with common household materials and a computer. “We promote hands-on learning through physical experiments that students conduct on their own,” she says.

For example, to track the position of the Moon over a two-week period, students build a simple sextant — a protractor for the sky — using cardboard, pins, thread, and tape. In another exercise, students use a Web application to explore pictures of galaxies and analyze their properties.

Students of the General Education Astronomy Source project also use special Web applications, like this one to analyze galaxy properties, to complete lab projects.

One lab is all about craters. Students learn that planetary scientists can estimate how fast a projectile was moving when it hit the Moon’s surface by measuring the size of the resultant crater. After looking at several pictures, students round up a bucket, some sand and flour, a measuring tape, and a marble. They proceed to drop the marble from various heights and make their own craters to investigate the relationships between drop height, projectile speed, and crater size.

Developing projects that can be done at home, however, is only the first step in a successful do-it-yourself lab. What if students don’t understand the instructions? What if they make a mistake but don’t realize it? What if they get frustrated or have a question? In a traditional lab, the instructor can provide assistance and feedback in real time. There is no such luxury in distance education.

Dr. Nicole Vogt demonstrates how to use a homemade sextant in one online lab video tutorial.

To keep tabs on student progress, Vogt uses Google Drive, an online utility that allows collaborators to view and edit documents in real time. Each student keeps a lab report document where they record data and answer questions. The collaborative nature of Google Drive lets the instructor see student responses before an assignment is due. This effectively mimics the instructor-student interaction in a traditional lab course. For instance, if a student mistakenly concludes that faster projectiles make smaller craters, the instructor can leave a comment to ask if there was a problem performing the experiment.

Vogt points out that GEAS is a work in progress but has come a long way. The unique format of the lab exercises can present a daunting learning curve, as many students are used to online courses requiring little work. That said, students who persevere through the first couple of lab exercises typically come away with an appreciation for how much they have learned.

The GEAS project has the potential to have far-reaching impacts: beyond New Mexico, materials are currently being used in California, Virginia, Michigan, and even Canada. “Our lab exercises are available free of charge to astronomy instructors worldwide,” Vogt says. “By increasing access to laboratory science courses through distance learning, we can remove a significant barrier to completion of the bachelor’s degree.”