Graduate student and astronomy writer


UBMS: Week 1

This blog post is a reflection on my first week as a mentor in the UBMS program, the second post in a series that will span the next few weeks. You can read my first blog post in this series that describes the UBMS program and my role within it here.

Last Tuesday was the first day of our program. We had a shortened class period with them since they had other introductory things they needed to complete for the larger UBMS program. We have two students in our astronomy program, a sophomore and a senior, both of whom seemed very excited to be learning about exoplanets. Student A (the senior) has been in the UBMS program twice before this, and worked on projects about cosmic rays and atmospheric emission. My co-mentor and I think that Student A’s background will serve her well this summer.

Student B (the sophomore) is a first-timer in UBMS, but has a great excitement for exoplanets. Student B seems to have done a lot of background reading about exoplanets, and came in with good prior knowledge about the specifics of the research project, but lacking some fundamental background knowledge about astronomy and physics. Making sure that the two students are on the same page all summer will be a challenge, given their different educational levels and previous experience.

One learning activity that I am very excited to introduce to the students is the idea of concept mapping. When you create a concept map, you identify the key topics, ideas, or skills that you have learned (nodes) and specify the connections between each of them. When done right, a concept map is an excellent tool for synthesizing information, gaining a view of the scope of a course, and identifying how seemingly disparate topics fit together. This is something I have never seen done in a physics or astronomy course, where oftentimes topics are presented piecemeal and the “larger picture” is often presented at the end as a “ta da!” moment.

At the end of each of our lessons, Michael and I are having the students create a small concept map for the concepts and skills they learned that day. That is the smaller scale review. Between lessons, Michael and I add their smaller concept maps to the larger, master concept map that we are iteratively building throughout the entire course. At the start of each following lesson, we present to them how what they learned last week has been integrated into a larger concept map. They get a visual representation of how their knowledge base is growing, and of how everything that they’ve learned is connected together towards a larger goal. Not only that, but they get the assurance that everything they will learn is relevant to the course goal, and not just side tangents that interest us.

We started on Tuesday with introductions for myself and Michael, as well as our two “faculty” (read: postdoc) mentors. We introduced the topic of the course, general expectations, and the like. We introduced the research question and had the students brainstorm what they would need to know to answer this. Having them come up with the course overview reflected the same process that Michael and I went through designing the course, and was a way for them to break down the big task in front of them into manageable pieces. The students appeared to value this exercise, as it gave them a picture of what the next few weeks would be like, and seemed to lessen the intimidation factor learning something new can bring.

When we mentioned to the students that we were having them take their own transit observations, they seemed excited to actually get to go observing (I think their enthusiasm will wane after experiencing the tedium involved). Whenever the weather cooperates, we’ll go observe a transit, and spend the wait time using the other telescope on the roof to look at pretty things like galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.

We started the course for real last Thursday, with an overview of basic astronomy. We went through from the Solar System, to stars, to galaxies, and the Universe. We introduced the transit method, and did a brief overview of telescopes and CCDs. It was a lot of information for one day, but we assured them that we would go over the more important bits in more detail later. Our hands-on portion of the lesson had them being trained to use the 24″ telescope on the Davey rooftop. Our first potential observing night was only two days away, so they needed to be trained. No hiccups there, and while they really enjoyed getting to work with the telescope themselves (Michael and I kept hands-off), they got their first taste of the tedium of waiting for long exposures. Observing will be an interesting experience.

The first attempt at concept mapping at the end of Thursday’s lesson went alright, though they seemed a little hesitant at first. We pre-selected for them a few nodes they might want to include, and they added many of their own, as well. The connections they made needed a little modification, but overall they did very well at synthesizing the large amount of information we have them that day. Their final concept map for that day was more extensive than we had expected, and I’m very interested to see what they come up with in subsequent lessons.

This blog was supposed to be posted last Friday or Saturday. I realize that being late on your first in a series of blog posts is not a good thing, but it actually highlights one of the lessons I learned last week: always have your lesson plans done before the class starts! My co-mentor, Michael, and I had completed about 80% of of the lesson plans, course material, and project instructions beforehand, but that last 20% is very difficult to complete while you are simultaneously getting ready for class. We have mostly caught up by now, and I have definitely learned my lesson.

Also regarding lesson plans, I have learned that, just like in battle, no plan survives first contact. I am generally a very meticulous and organized person, and my lesson plans are no different. Michael and I created a course outline and a breakdown of the content and skills needed to answer the research question, and from there we created plans for each individual session. The lesson plans are very detailed, given that one of us usually writes them and yet both have to teach from them, and include some lecture, lots of active learning methods, hands-on demos, and actually working with their data. Given that the students are not only working with unfamiliar ideas and extremely exhausted from their intensive program, it’s very hard to predict how long each activity will take. I will have to be very flexible in the coming weeks to ensure that the students learn what they need and get the work done.

Overall, the first week was a bit hectic, but very awesome. Being able to work with interested students in a small group setting is much different than teaching a class of even 20 people, and allows for a more informal and personal approach. I’m excited to see what Week 2 will bring!

Until next week, dear readers.


Mentoring in the UBMS Program: Overview

This summer I decided to take on a new challenge, something that I hope will provide good experience in teaching and mentoring and help me decide if I want to take that sort of path after I defend my dissertation. The Upward Bound Math and Science Program at Penn State has been operating since 2001 and “is designed to strengthen the math and science skills of low-income, first-generation potential college students” (UBMS Website). During the summer session while the undergrads are away, UBMS hosts a Summer STEM Institute on the University Park campus to give students from underprivileged areas of Pennsylvania extra classes in STEM areas, plus classes in useful things like presentation skills, how to write a research paper, how to keep a lab notebook, etc. The students live and work on campus for around 6 weeks to take classes.

As part of the Summer STEM institute, the visiting high school students also get to choose a research project to participate in, complete, and present at the end of the Institute. My role in UBMS this summer is to lead one of the research “labs” with my co-mentor and fellow astronomy grad student, Michael Rodruck. This involved selecting a research question to answer, designing a project aimed at answering it, preparing and executing lesson plans to teach the students background material and guide them through the project, and being an overall mentor to the students in this real-life research experience. Our lab section is a part of the Summer STEM Institute’s Summer Experience in the Eberly College of Science (SEECoS) program.

Michael and I have been training and preparing since mid March to lead this lab section, which only meets twice a week. The research question we devised (under the supervision of our Astro department supervisors Drs. Kate Grier and Jon Trump and UBMS leaders) is How do we detect extra-solar planets using the transit method, and what can we learn about those planets from this method?” We chose the transit method specifically over other detection methods because 1) we can use the rooftop telescopes on Davey Laboratory to measure the transits of exoplanets hands-on (whereas, we cannot use those telescopes to make radial velocity, microlensing, or direct imaging measurements) and 2) we can use the publicly available Kepler light curves to get the students working with all types of planets.

I have also found in my public speaking experience that the transit method is the most widely known exoplanet detection method and is the most straightforward of the methods for novices to grasp. Given the extremely limited timespan in which we get to work with our students (only 10 lessons!), the transit method seemed like the way to go.

This teaching/mentoring experience will have a lot of firsts for me: my first time teaching high schoolers, my first time teaching a course on exoplanets, my first time designing the content for an entire course, my first time applying active learning techniques in the classroom. I decided a that a useful exercise for me would be to chart this experience through a series of blog posts. At the end of each week I will write a blog post reflecting on the experiences of the week, things that went well, things that didn’t, things  learned, things I would do differently next time. I will not be using my students’ real names for privacy reasons.

This will also be the first time I’m writing a blog like this: a live, self-reflection on my teaching experiences. I hope you’ll all stick with me as I stumble my way through the next 5 weeks. It will be an interesting experience, to say the least.


Skip to toolbar