Two Recent Talks

I gave a couple of talks recently that I have placed up on the Our Solar Siblings Vimeo site. Both were in Perth in mid-2015. There was a triple-whammy of conferences over two weeks where I gave these two presentations as well as a workshop. The first talk was at the Astronomical Society of Australia meeting and involved my research into types of projects that involve high school students in undertaking authentic scientific research. The second talk was at the Australasian Science Education Research Association meeting which outlined my high school project “Our Solar Siblings”, it’s design, it’s results and it’s future directions.


Bunyips in September.

Interesting that the first time I get a complete spare moment with no internet and no contact with civilized society I just feel like having a sleep! Removing the capacity for demands of urban life to drag your attention away is a good way to see how tiring some things are! Tiring but very productive! The last year has involved chasing a variety of future-seeking strands with little time for dilly-dallying! However, now I have purposefully taken a moment off in Bunyip State Forest to dilly-dally to my hearts extent… without mobile reception or human interaction… pretty sweet :)

Occupationally, as of March 2015, my main source of motivation has been in a Postdoctoral Fellow position at Edith Cowan Institute for Education Research. The Institute seeks to undertake research that has an applied focus at improving the educational outcomes for all students but, in particular, those students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. This very much gels with my goals!

I hope my major project with this position will be to travel around Western Australian schools talking to people trying to get a good idea of why science isn’t taught so well in high schools. I have a variety of prejudices and suspicions! There have continued to be many calls and mandates for improvement in scientific literacy and educational outcomes for all from the top echelon, but these hopes and dreams don’t seem to translate down to action at the classroom level. I suspect the issue has not that much causally to do with those in and around the classroom itself. At any rate, I have applied for funding to make this project happen and I await news within the next few months.


Also a large part of my activities this year has been designing, teaching and evaluating a new approach to teaching introductory astronomy at Monash University. Recently the architecture and furniture of the School of Physics and Astronomy has been refurbished (and in some part, continues to be) to facilitate a new “Physics and Astronomy Collaborative Environment”. This redesign has taken place with guidance from the results of a variety of new approaches to teaching trialed internationally with success, largely in the United States. The first subject to be redesigned was ASP1010: Introductory Astronomy. This is a large (about 250 students) subject that was traditionally taught with three lectures and one two-hour laboratory per week.

This year, the lectures were completely removed and  replaced with two two-hour laboratories per week with work done at home. I had a large part in the designing, writing and teaching of the subject, but I also designed surveys and interview techniques so that we can answer the question .. “Is this way of teaching better than the traditional way of teaching?”. There is a large amount of data to wade through and I have yet to do the direct comparison to 2014, but it certainly looks very promising! In general, the total content knowledge gain (as a percentage of how much they could possibly learn compared to what they already knew) of 40% +/- 20%, which is dramatically higher than a typical traditional university lecture course which usually hovers not too far above zero. I’ll keep it posted! A paper is enroute to the submittery 😉


My favourite and most personal of my endeavours though is the high school project, Our Solar Siblings , a project where teachers and students can utilize research grade telescopes available from Because it is my favourite thing at the moment, I am going to shortly write a whole piece on it and describe it there… let it be known though…. That trying to run a project like this is not an easy task for the impatient! Things…. Take…… Time…….


The World Arrives at Night (Star Printer)

Pretty happy to have been involved in the creation of a starprinter with Michaela Gleave which had it’s debut at the recent Melbourne Art Fair. Perfect for all lovers of cosmology, stars, philosophical musings of the human place in the universe and dot matrix printers. (It is hard to underestimate the attraction of the last one once you have re-experienced it’s whiny impacting glory).


The World Arrives at Night (Star Printer)



Dot matrix printer, mini PC, custom computer program, fanfold paper, table

Programming: Michael Fitzgerald

Duration: infinite


The World Arrives at Night (Star Printer) prints data relating to one star per minute of stars as they appear over the horizon for the location of the viewer.  Astronomically correct, the object tracks the rotation of the Earth, the waterfall of paper documenting the movements of the sky as time continually compresses in the paper stack on the floor.  Programmed to operate indefinitely, the work is a collaboration between artist Michaela Gleave and astronomer Michael Fitzgerald and combines a shared interest in the mechanisms of the universe and the human construction of understanding.  Monitoring the movement of the stars for eternity The World Arrives at Night (Star Printer) breaks down distinctions between day and night, the flow of data serving as a reminder of our position within the universe.

Review of High School Level Astronomy Projects

0.2125 score and 0 years ago, I embarked on my PhD. Initially I thought it would be a relative breeze… little did I know that I was entering a field that really hadn’t been that well-researched or defined… using telescopes to undertake some research in the high school classroom. Try as hard as I might, I could not find anywhere that gave a good summary of the field historically and/or as it stood today. Furthermore, a lot of the publications I found tended to be “what we are going to do” focussed rather than “what we did”, let alone “this is how well we did” (which was rare indeed!). These publications themselves were scattered over many journals and conference proceedings, although Astronomy Education Review (rest in peace) did do a good job at keeping it together in one place and more coherently in the later part of the era.

Awash in a sea of literature, I endeavored to piece together the story from the non-arbitrary starting point (early 1990s) when the technology became feasibly available to run these type of projects up until the present day. This was done by summarising the literature that was available as well as interviewing people from nearly every one of the 22 projects identified as well as providing a definition for these style of projects (which I titled ARiC – Astronomy Research in the Classroom – projects).

From these sources, it was not possible to make solid comparisons between projects in terms of relative success but it was possible to present and discuss the issues that arose out of the literature and interviews. The main culprits primarily being the definite lack of evaluation of success in the field preventing such comparisons between what works and what does not as well as the necessity of stable longterm funding for these projects to really start reaping educational results.

The culmination of this research was the acceptance for publication of a 26 page review article in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia. The preprint is now up on arxiv, and the abstract is presented below. Enjoy!


A Review of High School Level Astronomy Student Research Projects over the last two decades

Michael T. Fitzgerald, Robert Hollow, Luisa M. Rebull, Lena Danaia, David H. McKinnon

Since the early 1990s with the arrival of a variety of new technologies, the capacity for authentic astronomical research at the high school level has skyrocketed. This potential, however, has not realized the bright-eyed hopes and dreams of the early pioneers who expected to revolutionise science education through the use of telescopes and other astronomical instrumentation in the classroom. In this paper, a general history and analysis of these attempts is presented. We define what we classify as an Astronomy Research in the Classroom (ARiC) project and note the major dimensions on which these projects differ before describing the 22 major student research projects active since the early 1990s. This is followed by a discussion of the major issues identified that affected the success of these projects and provide suggestions for similar attempts in the future.

Green Things in General

A lot of people don’t bother about their friends in the VEGETABLE KINGDOM. They think, “Ah, what can I say? What can a person like myself say to a vegetable?” But the answer is simple, my friends . . . just call . . . and tell them how you feel . . . about MUFFINS, PUMPKINS, WAX PAPER, CALEDONIA, MAHOGANIES, ELBOWS AND GREEN THINGS IN GENERAL . . . and soon: A NEW RAPPORT! You and your new little green & yellow buddies . . . grooving together! OH NO! Maintaining your coolness together! Worshipping together in the church of your choice! Woh-oh-oh-ah-agh-h . . .

Call any vegetable
Call it by name
You gotta call one today
When you get off the train
Call any vegetable
And the chances are good
AR-R-H-R that the vegetable
Will respond to you…
OH NO! Can you see them responding?
The PUMPKIN is breathing hard:

what a pumpkin . . .



Physics and Astronomy Collaborative Environment (PACE)

Having just marked the last exam for a first year astronomy subject and have a little time, I thought I might write up a little of what I did. The first six months of 2014 were quite a ride in many respects (not least in submitting the PhD as chronicled below), but in many many new projects involving fingers in too many pies once again. I guess that is just how I like to function :)

A strange new UFO building (or the New Horizons building).

Some of the recent work I have been doing is in the School of Physics at Monash University. I have been undertaking laboratory sessions for a first year astronomy subject in the new Physics and Astronomy Collaborative Environment (PACE) buidlings. So far, due mainly to necessity in semester one as the move had only just completed, most subjects retained their ‘traditional’ approach laboratory+lecture setup. However, in first year astronomy, room was made to play around and experiment with new approaches.

In collaboration with Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway and some of the other demonstrators we tried out a bunch of new, more hands-on, activities. We utilised some of my already existing colour imaging and stellar evolution materials (which I outline in a future post) for some of the labs but I also made some brand new asteroid-based materials specifically for the PACE labs.

(A few of the Prompt Telescopes)

The general gist of the new asteroid labs was that the first year undergraduate students got to utilise the PROMPT telescopes in Chile. When I did my undergraduate at Monash, the first time I really got to use a telescope properly was in a (then) brand new subject called ASP3132: Observational Astronomy where a major project was based around the use of a small telescope for research purposes. So the first year students (I imagine) don’t really know how cool being able to use a proper telescope that early really is! It is a very motivating experience to get your own research grade images (if anything is going to motivate you!) as a student.

The general approach taken was that the students used the planetarium software “Stellarium” to plan their observations. Chile is in South America and in a different timezone at a different latitude so we used that to explore aspects of positional astronomy that are dependant on their location on Earth. They had to pick a bright asteroid taking into consideration its brightness (too bright and the scope would overexpose, too dim and it would be unable to be seen) and whether it was actually in the sky at all in Chile during the observing night. They could then submit their asteroid to be observed and images were taken a week apart.

(This image is two shots of pluto taken a week apart. Pluto is in each image and the students had to find it in each one and  hence measure it’s movement. Seems impossible, right?)

With 300 students, broken into 100 groups of three, there was significant overlap in requests of asteroids, so it was quite easy to get them all their images in robotic mode from the telescopes. Also taken were two shots of Pluto which, in this day and age, is actually easier to deal with than measuring asteroids and hence was used as a training exercise. The students had to get their hands very dirty in analyzing the images and calculated both Pluto and the Asteroid’s orbital period and pinpoint where the objects were located in the solar system. The results gained were of publishable research quality (to the Minor Planet Center) given enough effort but this authentic data was used more as a training exercise rather than as an intended contribution to human knowledge.

On the face of things, anecdotally, this approach seems to be a major improvement on the general toy and/or cookbook labs that are generally presented in a lot of astronomy courses. It does follow the guidelines to good instruction that we know from the literature… but we don’t know whether it is actually ‘better’ yet on any dimension as we did not take into account any evaluation at this stage. This was primarily due to my late emergence onto the scene! Next semester (Mid-July onwards), we will be incorporating new PACE labs with evaluation built-in to a variety of subjects… most intriguing for me is an astronomical/philsophical/astrobiological subject called Life in the Universe where I will be having a heavy hand in the redesign and evaluation of new lab approaches. Tastily totally up my alley :)