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 :)

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