PH 205: Solar System Astronomy Hybrid course in a nutshell

PH 205 is a course that describes the content, structure and formation of the Solar system. It is the first of a three term sequence, where the second and third courses are PH 206: Stars and Stellar Evolution and PH 207: Galaxies, Quasars and Cosmology. These classes do not depend on each other, and are taught as stand-alone courses. I taught this sequence of courses several times as a lecture class, and then as an online class, and am now developing the courses in the hybrid format.

I expect the enrollment to start out at 30 – 50 students. Since it is a science class with a lab component, most of my students come from programs that require such a class, and are mainly non-science majors. They come from all walks, from photography, business, forestry, human development, the arts, etc. About a fifth of the class who are physics majors who do not need the class as such, but have an avid interest in astronomy. Some folks who are not science majors have a long-standing interest in astronomy as well, and have learned much from educational tv and internet sources. This makes the class very bimodal in background.

The format of this four credit course is that we meet for three hours a week, either TR for 80 minutes or MWF for 50 minutes. The lab portion of the course is done online, supported by in-class introduction.

When I developed the Ecampus version of the course, I transformed my previous teaching material from PowerPoints to webpages. The course webpages are not meant to take the place of a textbook, but fulfill more than what my PowerPoint lectures did. I realized that when I looked online at PowerPoint slides for say, a research talk, they were hard to follow without all of the connecting tissue that is provided by a speaker. In producing my webpages, I basically rebuilt my PowerPoint lectures with newer images and graphics, and wrote in paragraph form the content of what I would have said. I included interactive simulations and short videos whenever possible, keeping a strong eye on quality.

When I lecture, I work from my webpages. I like to spend roughly a third of the time lecturing, and the rest of the time doing some kind of interactive activities. I have found that including an online lab component can be harder to manage than I had anticipated. It does not work well if it is simply “tacked on” to the rest of the course as a separate entity. Students tend to do poorly on the labs and fall behind in them. The physics department policy for courses with labs is typically that is a student does not receive a passing grade in at least seven of the eight labs, they receive an F for the whole course. It is important to introduce the methods and concepts used in the labs during the lecture time. I often work through short exercises in class that are similar to what students will be doing in lab, so that when they attempt the lab, it already looks somewhat familiar.

Other in-class activities include short group-work projects, often built on developing conceptual understanding of physical mechanisms underlying the systems. Very often, students entering my class think they will spend time doing things like learning to identify constellations in the sky. I do ask them to do this in a Night Sky Journal, but for the most part, I teach astronomy as an applied physics course. Many of the processes are complicated and multi-faceted, not easily learned through memorization. A good group exercise involves people talking through a complicated series of steps where one mechanism causes the next, which causes the next, etc. They are encouraged to use whatever forms they like, including drawings, bullet points, mapping or other graphic methods.

I have been working to build a series of tutorials to provide another avenue for students to learn the material online. The tutorials often take the form of voice-over PowerPoints with series of self-check questions along the way. I introduce the tutorials in class, and make them available via Canvas in my weekly modules and as links on my webpages. My students soon learn that several of the homework questions are very hard to answer if they have not worked through the tutorials, but easy if they do go through the process.

Integrating real-time discussion in class has been very fruitful in my hybrid course. Partly, I use a Just-In-Time approach where they students are asked a question prior to class, where they participate by posting in a discussion board and replying to each other. The discussion board loses a few minutes after the start of class. If there are points to discuss, I open a new discussion board and the students interact online for four minutes or so. I find that they have gotten to know each other very well in a short time by integrating their online presence with in-class discussions. In general, they are more open to verbally discussing material than previous classes I have taught. Even shy people seem to be open to speaking up in the group if they have been texting each other. This is an experiment that has turned out very well, and I am thinking of ways to incorporate real-time texting in more novel ways.

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