Date: September 24, 2011

Title: Wonders from Class, Part 4: Labs

Podcaster: Diane Turnshek


Description: Just the good bits of astronomy class.

Bio: Diane Turnshek is an astronomer and a science fiction author with short fiction in Analog Magazine and elsewhere. She currently teaches classes in astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and St. Vincent College. Her day job is Outreach Coordinator for the Physics Department at Carnegie Mellon University.

Sponsors: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Kylie Sturgess of the Token Skeptic podcast, at

This episode of “365 Days Of Astronomy” has also been sponsored anonymously and is dedicated to people who like to look up in the night sky and get goosebumps.


Welcome back for another installment of “Wonders from Class.” Hi, I’m Diane Turnshek. I’m currently teaching introductory astronomy at Carnegie Mellon University and St. Vincent College. The two schools are 43 miles apart, so I listen to podcasts while I make the long commute. Here’s a shout out to all the other 365 Days of Astronomy podcasters for keeping me company on my long drives.

I’d like to tell you’uns about the lab sections of my classes. They run fifteen weeks. Instead of using a prepackaged collection, I’ve found or made up labs to go along with the lectures and class discussions, topic-by-topic. Many of these are free on the web and can be done by anyone with an interest in how science works. My goal is to take the mystery out of the procedures—my students should come away with the appreciation that the Universe is knowable and have a gleaning of how scientists go about studying it. This podcast has a list of all mentioned web pages in the show notes.

My first lab is usually a scavenger hunt—go to all the coolest and most useful astronomy sites and bring back a piece of information that shows that you’ve been there. I ask my students to find a picture on Astronomy Picture of the Day and look up a star chart on web site. They use a NASA site to find the next lunar eclipse and SOHO (the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) to see if there are currently any sunspots. Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines, the local amateur astronomy club and Allegheny Observatory are all featured. Go find a meteorite for sale and give me the weight, type and price. When is the next pass of the International Space Station? What’s today’s phase of the moon? What’s the count for exosolar planets? Find me a specific piece of information from the American Astronomical Society website. Listen to a short Kahn Academy talk on astronomy and answer a question about it.

For those who don’t know, the Kahn Academy is awesome and should be used by everyone who wants to learn any of the thousands of subjects taught by Sal Kahn, the only faculty member at the Academy. Sal originally made an explanatory math video for his cousins, and then it put it on YouTube for anyone else who might be interested. He was as surprised as anyone when it became popular. He made a few more, and then quit his job as an analyst at a hedge fund to make even more free videos on a wide variety of subjects. Bill Gates got involved at some point and the whole success story can be heard in Sal’s TED talk. It’s an invaluable class resource. Imagine a lecture you can pause, repeat, rewind, recap. I love it! I hope you enjoy these videos as much as I have.

Next up on the scavenger hunt is Phil Plait’s I ask the students to pick a movie off his list of reviews, and tell me whether they agree or disagree with his rants on how bad the astronomy is. His comments are hilarious, but many movies are just for fun—you’re going to criticize the bad astronomy in a movie like Men in Black or Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me? Yes, Dr. Evil says the Moon rotates about the Earth, when he should have said revolves. We see a red laser beam shooting into space and Mini-Me screaming in a vacuum. Okay, those are minor points. The students invariably stand up for their favorite movies, but Phil does a fantastic critical assessment of my all time anti-favorite movie The Core.

The last stop on our trip around the Internet is at Cary Huang’s sliding “Scale of the Universe.” I didn’t even know what the endpoints of the scale were: yottameters at 1024 meters and yoctometers at 10-24 meters. A bar slides on a scale from the smallest things in the universe, strings on the order of a Planck Length, out to the entire visible universe and then beyond. The illustrations are adorable—how did he pick what things we humans would key on for size? I especially like the purple 7-meter giant earthworm.

We typically do one CLEA lab, out of the seventeen available. CLEA stands for Contemporary Laboratory Experiences in Astronomy. These labs were designed at Gettysburg College with funds from an NSF grant. The one I like is “Revolution of the Moons of Jupiter.” From a few simple observations and laws, one can find the mass of Jupiter. A quibble. Why did the designations for Jupiter Diameters and the Julian Date both have to be abbreviated to JD? And some of the student manual procedural directions are just wrong. This lab allows the students who are really into the subject to shine. The students with math phobia? Ah, hmm . . . they’re glad when it’s over, but I hope they had a glimpse into how simple astronomy calculations can be done.

I love the Sloan Digital Sky Survey lab on spectral types. Eight advanced labs suitable for college students are available on the SDSS website—thoughtfully done with great step-by-step procedurals. Hubble diagram, Galaxies, Quasars . . . the latest data, clear diagrams and pictures. Good job, SkyServer team!

I’m putting together a freshman lab course based on citizen science projects, but we only use a few for my current astronomy classes. Spring classes contribute to Globe at Night and fall semester classes do the Great World-Wide Star Count. Both programs look at global light pollution. Go out and look up during designated calendar windows. Match the brightness of the stars you see in a particular constellation with a chart of magnitudes. Turn it in online. The latest analyses show that the world’s skies are getting brighter. While this isn’t a surprise, it is good to have the data. Now we just have to turn it around and see darker skies with each passing year instead. Hundreds of my students work to add to the world’s knowledge in this area. I hope they remember these cold nights when they’re called on to vote on light pollution measures.

This week my students are doing a children’s book lab. It sounds deceptively simple. Write a twelve-page children’s book. I bring in some of my favorite children’s books to class. My Place in Space by Robin and Sally Hirst and Disney’s Wonderful World of Space by Andrew Fraknoi are treasures. The assignment is: One picture or diagram and at least one sentence on each page. Scientific accuracy necessary. Include a quote. (I love astronomy quotes.) Everyone has to pick a different topic. To distill down a complex subject like black holes so that it’s a 5th grader level is not as easy as it looks. The students can be wonderfully creative. They’ve turned in e-books in various formats, animated books, books with painted feathers, ones with pull tabs to make the subjects shift and pop-up books. Some of the books are given to me to distribute to elementary schools.

As a prize for the best one turned in, one lucky student gets a copy of “Hanny and the Mystery of the Voorwerp.” It’s a comic book, published by the Citizen Science Alliance. It’s a tool for teaching the wonders of science. Anyone can be involved through citizen science—like Hanny, a school teacher from the Netherlands, who discovered a mysterious blue extragalactic object. Scientists had never seen anything like it before. The comic book traces the path from discovery, observations, proposal writing, more observations, scientific teamwork, though to the explanation of the mysterious object. It’s quite a story!

Tim Slater, Stephanie Slater and Dan Lyons (from the University of Wyoming) have come up with an idea for laboratory learning exercises they call “Backward Faded Scaffolding.” On the CAPER web site (CAPER stands for Center for Astronomy and Physics Education Research), is a collection of astronomy assignments using the rich archival data sets of Galaxy Zoo. Backward faded scaffolding is a multi-step approach. First you give the students all they need to do the lab assignment. You give them the question, the data set, the procedure and the method of presenting the result. Once they do that lab, you go back the beginning, but now start to fade away the scaffolding. You give them the question and the data set, suggest a method, but let them refine it and put forth their results. Next time through, you give them the question, let them find the data set and determine the procedure, and so on. Until you get back to the beginning—asking them to make up their own question, find a data set, determine a procedure, carry out the observations and write up the report—all on their own. Now that they’ve been through it with guidance, they know how and they carry on. It’s the reverse of the old standard practice. Perhaps it feels backward to our sensibilities, but it’s got greater learning potential for the students.

Astrology takes a beat-down. Thank you to Andy Fraknoi and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for this lab. We figure out if the US presidents fall under the same birth sign, or at most a few birth signs. You’d think presidents might have similar characteristics, seeing as they all rose to the same position of power. From lists of the birthdays of the US presidents, the students figure out for themselves that astrological zodiacal commonalities or grouping don’t exist for presidents. In “Your Astrology Defense Kit,” Andy points out ten logical inconsistencies inherent in astrology and postulates jetology, the positions of all the jumbo jets in the sky at the moment of birth guides the entire life and personality of the infant. Ridiculous. Ridiculous? Well, yes, it is. And so is astrology.

We read and discuss astronomy-heavy science fiction short stories from Mike Brotherton’s free online anthology “Diamonds in the Sky,” we write our Congressmen about astronomy, read current events articles, build aliens and alien worlds and sometimes, my students even produce podcasts for 365 Days of Astronomy!

Thanks for listening. Have fun looking through the links in the show notes. Until next time, this is Diane Turnshek, signing off.

Show notes:
Bad Astronomy by Phillip C. Plait, copyright 2002, ISBN 0-471-40976-6, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, NY (Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”)

TED Talks Kahn Academy


Spectral Types (Sloan Digital Sky Survey)

Globe at Night

Great World Wide Star Count

Children’s books:

My Place in Space by Robin and Sally Hirst, Orchard Books, NY, copyright 1988, ISBN 0-531-05859-X, ISBN 0-531-08459-0 {LIB}

Disney Wonderful World of Space by Andrew Fraknoi, copyright 2009 Disney Pixar, Disney Press, NY, NY, ISBN 978-1-4231-2264-7

“Hanny and the Mystery of the Voorwerp” Comic Book, published by the Citizen Science Alliance, Illinois, USA, ISBN 978-0-615-48391-7

CAPER Team’s Backward Faded Scaffolding astronomy materials

Your Astrology Defense Kit by Andrew Fraknoi

ASP Activities with Astrology

Diamonds in the Sky, edited by Mike Brotherton

My students podcasts:
October 18, 2010, CMU students “Criticism of the Drake Equation”

November 24, 2011 CMU student “Differentiating Science From Spectacle”

December 28, 2010 CMU students “The Eastern Sky”

January 15, 2011, CMU students “2012: The End of the World”

February 15, 2011, CMU students “Black Holes”

April 15, 2011, St. Vincent student “Our Sun”

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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