Monday, July 11, 2016

Learning by Doing: Bringing Inquiry to Research

TAURUS and UT astronomy undergraduate researchers kick off the Inquiry Activity in Observational Astronomy on July 7, 2016.

The TAURUS team and ten other UT astronomy undergraduate researchers were in for a surprise last Thursday, when they walked into a seminar that had a slightly different feel.  The classroom tables were rearranged into pods, and they were told the next four hours were going to give them a first hand experience in designing investigations, processing data, and learning about a very important concept in astronomy: selection effects.  No lectures.  Instead, learning by doing.

The technique our scholars were exposed to is called inquiry.  It calls on teachers, or instructors, to take a step back and for the students to take a step forward in pushing their own learning experience by posing hard questions, struggling through their own misconceptions, and at the end, drawing conclusions based on what they learned.  After all, this is the authentic scientific experience.  Worksheets, cookbooks and formulae don't define the scientific experience, so why do we use them in the classroom?

Designing an inquiry experience for students is not easy.  You can't just show up in a classroom with a few props and expect students to get it.  Instead, inquiry-based activities take far more preparation than the typical lecture, even though instructors spend far less time talking during the experience itself.  It forces teachers to think critically about what's most important for students to learn.  Then they work backwards from the learning goal to build each part of the activity.

The Design

The team that designed this inquiry activity was made up of four UT astronomy researchers: Dr. Chao-Ling Hung, Dr. Adam McKay, soon-to-be Dr. Aaron Smith, and Prof. Caitlin Casey.  Earlier this year they attended the Institute for Scientist and Engineer Educators (ISEE) Professional Development Program (PDP) to learn about inquiry design and other pedagogical tools, like ways of making classrooms serve students more equitably and implementing effective assessment techniques.

The ISEE program has successfully run for 15 years out of the University of California - Santa Cruz. ISEE has trained over 600 researchers (graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and professionals) in inquiry techniques, who then go back and design and teach activities in their home communities.  The program started as part of UCSC's Center for Adaptive Optics, but has grown to include not just astronomers but biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, computer scientists and optometrists.  Recent growth in the ISEE program has allowed astronomers to attend from all over the country, including our team from the University of Texas.

Our group was very fortunate to attended the two ISEE PDP workshops in the Santa Cruz area in Spring 2016 to refine our understanding of inquiry-based techniques, and then to design this activity on selection effects with the help of the ISEE team.  "We learned what inquiry is by putting on a learner's hat and experiencing it for ourselves," Dr. Chao-Ling Hung says of the ISEE Inquiry Institute workshop.  "By the end of this two-day long activity I really appreciated how this can help learners understand the core concept of a lesson while maintaining ownership."

Our UT Austin PDP team at the ISEE Design Institute in April 2016.

After the workshops, it was time to mull over our design for a few weeks before teaching: a luxury most instructors don't get.  It was a very valuable time to reflect on what was most effective and ineffective about our strategy.  Would the students automatically pick up on what's missing from the datasets we give them?  What type of prior knowledge and misconceptions are they bringing to the table?  Is our thinking tool demonstration going to be clear enough, but also not so clear that they give away the "answers?"

Time to Teach Facilitate

Most teachers can sympathize that teaching always seems much easier until you have to do it.  Especially if you care to do it effectively in a hands-on environment.  The primary tool used in inquiry-based activities is called facilitating, which gives the student room to explore and discover phenomena on their own, with only mild assistance provided by instructors.  You set up the problem, and they investigate it.

A comparison of galaxies' redshifts vs. magnitude from two different surveys: what's the difference?

Students choose investigation groups.
Our TAURUS inquiry activity started students off at three stations, looking at and reflecting on plots of the same astronomical phenomena but shown in very different ways.  They were told teams of astronomers did their best to learn all they could about galaxies, star clusters and asteroids, but even when teams had the same amount of observing time, they came back with dramatically different answers.  Why?  This was to form the basis of the students' investigations.

After brainstorming questions about why the plots could be different, students chose their favorite questions to investigate further, forming groups working in each of the three areas, from solar system to the Universe.  Each group received a fixed budget of $1M to design observing campaigns which would help them learn more about the phenomena.  How would changing their observing strategy affect their scientific conclusions?

That was the key lesson, which each of our five groups of three, eventually understood.  Despite the fact that many of these students have experience conducting research in astronomy, very few of them had given much thought (before this activity) to how you design observations to minimize bias.  After a few hours of investigations, students presented their conclusions on posters in groups, and we reviewed the material all together at the very end.
Aaron Smith talking with Meghana Killi and Danielle Rowland
about their investigation into star clusters.

Reaction to the activity was great, with many students remarking that they walked away with a much more deep conceptual understanding of selection bias than when they walked into the classroom.  The plan is to introduce this type of activity into the classroom for UT astronomy majors, or release the designed activity to the larger astronomical community to run elsewhere, so that learning by doing becomes the new norm.

Elizabeth GutiƩrrez and Derek Holman discuss properties of asteroids in their investigation.

Luke Stevens, Kaartikey Gupta and Emily Strickland discuss galaxy survey techniques with Dr. Chao-Ling Hung.

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