Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Week #2 - Hurricane Isaac

Well, week #2 was a mess.  Monday started off like I planned, but Hurricane Isaac decided he wanted nothing to do with the republican national convention and headed for us instead.  Classes ended up being cancelled Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  For me, Isaac was largely a non-event.  I lost power for all of about 30 seconds.  I worked a bit on my lectures and cleaned up around the apt, but mostly I was bored of watching the weather channel and not leaving the house for three days.

Some of my students didn't fare as well.  Classes resumed on Friday and I got a number of e-mails from students saying they wouldn't be back because their parents' house is flooded, their route back to school takes them across a road that could get washed out in a dam break, etc...  I don't know of anyone that got seriously injured, but either way, it's a crappy start to the semester for some people.  

As for school, I'm not sure why we started up again on Friday.  Only about 2/3 of my students showed up.  And with many of them having gone home for the hurricane and then monday being labor day, I don't blame them for not wanting to come back for just a single day.  I know it probably has to do with requirements for how many days school has to be in session, but it was less than ideal.  I don't know if the school lost power or what, but every building I went in was really really humid.  And it was so humid outside that every window in the building was covered in condensation like a glass full of ice water.  But, teaching went well.  I used my globe and legos to illustrate how the constellations change over the course of the year.  And, for a few people, to help them realize that midnight happens when we're on the side of the Earth that is facing AWAY from the Sun.  It still amazes me the number of people that have no concept of our position in space.

At the end of the week the school announced that we would no longer get our 2 day fall break, but instead use these to make up classes that we missed.  And, they'd pick a Saturday that would be optional as a make up day.  I only missed one day of my MWF class, and the fall break will take care of that.  My TTH class missed two days (well, a whole week, really), but I'm going to try and make it up using the fall break day, but not the Saturday.  I really don't want to teach on a Saturday.

The weekend was spent mostly on stuff around the apt, with some time spent on preparing lectures and updating the course web site.  I got a lot of e-mails from students that don't read instructions.  It'll probably be a running theme for the semester, but right now I'm still surprised how many of them will go to the trouble of sending me an e-mail with a question whose answer can easily be found on the course web site.  I'm answering most of the e-mails with something like "this info is on the course web page."  Hopefully that will help curb the e-mails.  

On to week 3 and teaching people about seasons!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The First Two Weeks - Days 12, 13, 14

I meant to get around to this earlier, but well, there was a delay, which I'll get to later.  

Friday went well.  I taught the motions of the sky to my three classes and they all seemed to get it.  With the exception of that same question with the sun in front of Taurus.  Same deal with about half of them answering in a way that suggests they forgot that the sun and stars move together.  I asked for people to tell me after class if they had any idea why half the class got that wrong.  Comments varied but ranged from people pointing out that I had just explained how to vote "e" with the voting cards and the common wrong answer was "e" to the fact that the diagram resembles a clock face with the constellations as numbers and the sun is one of the "hands."  There was no consensus, so I'm not sure of the problem.  Either way, the lecture was still fun for me.  

After class I had a short break for some food before a 2:30 meeting with the TAs so I could find out what their responsibilities are for the semester.  That was followed by a 3:30pm "meeting" with the other astronomers in the dept.  It wasn't a meeting so much as a chance to sit and discuss astronomy related stuff within the dept.  And there was beer and popcorn.  

Saturday morning I got up early to play in the faculty/staff golf tournament.  I got paired up with a retired professor and two guys from the IT dept.  We had a really good time and ended up in 2nd.  Aside from the mosquitoes that could have flow off with a golf ball, it was a great day for golf.  That afternoon I spent a lot more time running errands than expected.  Why?  Well, because of the delay I mentioned above.  Soon to be hurricane Isaac decided to mess up my weekend.  Sometime on Friday or Saturday the path shifted so that we became the direct line of fire.  So, rather than working on my lectures for the week, I spent Saturday evening and most of Sunday prepping for the possible storm.  That resulted in me not getting to bed until about 1am Sunday, but still getting up early to teach Monday.  

Late Monday school decided to close on Tuesday and Wednesday.  We're currently showing the likelihood of tropical storm conditions all day both days, so I have that to look forward to.   But, assuming we have power, it'll give me two days to work on lectures.  Woo hoo!

Anyway, time for bed.  I imagine it'll be a long couple of days.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

The First Two Weeks - Day 11

I slept in a bit this morning and found out that traffic was somewhat easier at 8am than it has been around 7:15am.  Don't know if this is always the case, but the option to sleep in a bit on TTH would be nice.  The morning was mostly spent working on what I want to do for my lecture to start of next week.  I had office hours from 10am-12pm, but as expected, no one showed up.  A break for lunch and then it was time to get ready for class.  I was expecting today to be fun, but there was also a chance it would fail miserably since I planned on trying out some stuff I had never done in class.

The motion of the sky seems to be one of the hardest things to teach.  I'm not totally sure why, but I think its a combo of things... most students don't seem to pay any attention to the sky at all (I've had many students tell me you can't ever see the moon during the day) and that includes noticing how it changes over the course of the night.  In addition, my past classes have largely been composed of people that haven't lived anywhere other than the state where they were going to school.  Lastly, getting the students to think in three dimensions has been tough, especially when trying to visualize how a 3D view will be illustrated in 2D.  

So, my plan was to try two new things.  The first was to use a video showing time lapses of the night sky rather than trying to describe the motion or using still photos of star trails.  I think this one is amazing and have watched it a number of times just because it is so cool:


make sure to put it on full screen and turn the volume down just a bit... the music at the beginning is a bit loud.  I put together a worksheet with a handful of questions to get them to think about the video while watching it and I also pointed out pertinent info (like what direction the video is facing, or what objects are moving overhead) while it was running.  Two of the questions asked them to think about what happens if we were to move from Chile toward the south or toward the north.  To help visualize this, I put together a demo using a globe, some clay, and lego star wars figures, as shown below:


This isn't the best view, but the point of this is to show students how "up" is different for different locations since the Earth is a sphere.  The camera is looking close to straight down on Lando (standing on Minnesota/Canada), but can see some of the front of Luke (standing on the southern US) and all of the front of Boba Fett, who is standing on Antofagasta, Chile.  Because of this, if the camera were a star, Lando would see it almost straight overhead, but Boba Fett would only see it close to the horizon.  And, if Boba Fett were farther south, he wouldn't be able to see the camera at all, blocked by the Earth itself.  

After the video and demo, we went through a number of TPS questions and almost all went really well.  With the exception of one, a majority of the class got them correct on the first try.  The one that didn't go well?  It's the one that confuses the hell out of me as to why people miss it.  I first asked the students if the sun, moon, stars, and planets all move across the sky at basically the same rate over the course of one day.  They correctly said that this is true.  Then, I showed a diagram with the sun high in the sky at noon, in front of the constellation Taurus.  A few other constellations were also shown, with Pisces on the western horizon.   I asked what constellation the sun will be in front of at sunset and half of the class said Pisces, implying that the sun would move, but the constellations wouldn't.  This happens every time and I'm not sure where the disconnect is, but it's even more confusing since the question before addressed this same idea and everyone got it correct.  After some discussion everyone arrived at the right answer, but I'm going to ask the same question on the test and I'm curious to see the outcome.  

Regardless, this was a really successful lecture and I'm excited to try it out three more times tomorrow.  After class and a short break I made 400 copies of a handout for my classes tomorrow.  I'm pretty sure I've never made almost a ream's worth of copies before and man does it take forever.  I headed home about 5pm and after dinner and a break I spent close to two hours figuring out how to set up my gradebook in our course management software.  The help files are roughly useless so I had to figure most of it out by trial and error.  But, I think I have it kinda figured out.  Maybe.  Sort of.  

The First Two Weeks - Days 9 & 10

I didn't get a chance to post this morning about yesterday, so I've just decided to combine tuesday and wednesday into one post.  Tuesday wasn't super exciting.  I only have one TTH class to teach, but it is an hour and 20 minutes, instead of the 50 minutes like my MWFs.  I used to think I liked TTH best because I only spend two days in the class room, but I'm starting to think that I much prefer the shorter 50 min classes over the 80 min classes, which seem to drag on.  Or maybe that was because the air conditioner in the room was not on, so it was about 85 in there.  I was seriously sweating just standing there talking.  Other than that, the only thing to note was that I had three people get up and walk out after the intro slides and before I moved on to Curiosity.  I asked them about it and they said they were just sitting in to see if they want to take the class... guess the first 15 minutes was enough to tell them they didn't want to be there.  Oh well.  I'll just assume it is because they can only handle 15 minutes of my awesomeness.

This morning I got up around 6:30am again and quickly got ready so I could head off to work to get some stuff done before class.  Guess again.  Early this morning there was a major accident on the highway that resulted in a propane leak, shutting down the entire road.  Fortunately I don't have to drive that road, but I do parallel and cross it, so all the people that had to reroute ended up doing a large chunk of my commute.  It took me twice as long as usual to get in to work, so I barely had enough time to get ready for class.  

In class I try to use a lot of the techniques advocated by the Center for Astronomy Education (CAE; http://astronomy101.jpl.nasa.gov), including the think-pair-share questions.  For those of you not familiar with them, the TPS questions are ones you put up on the screen, students think about them and "vote" on an answer using "ABCD" cards that they hold up.  If they all get it right, you move on.  If not, they pair up and discuss their answers and hopefully the discussion helps the people that were initially wrong arrive at the correct answer.  In all three of my classes I did some TPS questions and it was really awesome to hear hundreds of students simultaneously burst into a conversation that I wanted them to have.  I think the key really is the phrasing of the instructions; just saying something like "compare your answers and discuss" doesn't cut it.  As the CAE folks say, telling students to "turn to you neighbor and convince them that you are correct" really gets it going since so many people like being right.  And, the discussion usually makes the people that are wrong change their minds.  Not always, but usually.  I need to work on what happens when little pockets of wrongness won't become correctness.  

As they were leaving class, a few students let me know that they really liked they way class went today. It was great to hear and hopefully I can keep that up for the rest of the semester.  I also have a few students that have learning disabilities and need "note takers."  All that really means it that the disabilities center asks for a volunteer from the class to provide a copy of their class notes to the student with a disability.  Before one of my classes today I asked for a couple of volunteers.  I got three people interested and all were girls.  Small sample size, but I find it odd no guys were interested in helping.  

As I'm sure MWF is going to be, today was busy.  The hour between classes really flies by and I got to have a snack around noon, but didn't eat lunch until 1:40pm.  That'll take some getting used to.  After lunch I fought off the desire to nap at my desk and went in search of someone that could help me set up my computer to use a working printer.  This was surprisingly difficult since they dept doesn't have any sort of sheet with that info on it, which would simplify the process.

To take save some time, I'm hoping to use the school's course management software to grade my homework assignments.  The software has a way to upload questions so that I don't have to type them in one-by-one and the file formatting isn't too bad.  But, there was a problem when I uploaded my questions and the error message I got was the equivalent of "whoops" or "uh-oh, there's a problem."  The program said to click for more info, which I did, and then it informed me if I were an sys admin I could turn on debugging to find out what the problem is.  Thanks for that, software people.  Useful.  After lots of guessing I figured out the solution was to delete all of the white space between each question and then put it back in.  That only took two hours to figure out.  Ultimately, this will save more than 10 times that much time in grading, assuming the system works as planned.  

The highway was still shut down, so I stayed at work pretty late (7pm) giving things a chance to clear up.  Traffic was still pretty bad and after a pit stop for some food, I got home about 8:30pm and finally had some dinner.  One fun thing is that I stopped by WalMart to pick up the LEGO Star Wars Desert Skiff set (complete with Sarlacc Pit).  

http://starwars.lego.com/en-us/Products/9496.aspx


Why, you ask?  Because Luke, Lando, and Boba Fett have a date with a globe and some clay for a demo in class tomorrow.  And LEGOs are freaking awesome.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The First Two Weeks - Day 8

Yesterday was the first day of classes, so I decided to make sure to get in relatively early.  I got onto campus around 7:40am... and so did everyone else.  Hopefully this is just going to be the case for the first couple of weeks, before the students get lazy and either drop all their early morning classes or stop coming to class all together.  An additional problem is that the staff commuter parking pass (which was free) only gives me access to the general commuter parking, which includes all of the students that drive to campus.  Given that I'm on the faculty "A" parking plan and I was planning on parking in an "A" lot, I assumed there was some form of restriction in that lot to just faculty.  Guess not.  I may have to move up to a paid plan, but I'll wait for a few weeks to see how things play out.  

My teaching schedule is:
MWF - 8:30am-9:30am, 10:30am-11:30am, 12:30pm-1:30pm
TH - 1:30pm-3:00pm

Current enrollments are 115, 238, 81, 81, in that order.  The 238 class is a very large expanse of humans to have staring at me, but it wasn't nearly as intimidating as I thought it would maybe.  Maybe if that was my first class ever it would have been bad, but it wasn't even my first class of the day, so it didn't really phase me.  There isn't much exciting to report about the classes themselves.  Everything went pretty smoothly, which was largely due to my prep the week/weekend before, so I highly recommend that to anyone new to teaching.  Being over prepared is a good thing.  

I talked about the syllabus/course rules and then gave them a quick presentation on the Mars Science Laboratory, aka "Curiosity."  Most people seemed to be amused at my reference to Curiosity as a "bad-ass robot laser tank" (I should trademark that).  They also found the overly dramatic "7 minutes of terror video" (below) to be funny at times, but it still got the point across about what kind of cool stuff NASA/JPL managed to do with a program that is projected to cost $2.5 billion over the left of the program.  In class I pointed out that "Avatar" had a gross world-wide profit of 2.7 billion, so people spent more money on watching Avatar than the US is spending on a real-life Sci-Fi movie.  



The last thing I'll say is that I have a new respect for people that perform (singers, dancers, actors in plays, etc) multiple shows in a short period of time.  Teaching really is like a performance.  To have any chance of keeping the students' attention, you have to be enthusiastic, entertaining, and you have to be a larger version of yourself to fill a room that seats about 300 people.  That's not really my personality, so I'm not sure how good of a job I'm doing with that.  But, I do know one thing: having to be "on" for three hours over a five hour period is exhausting.  And another thing: that hour break in between classes disappears very quickly when you factor in students talking to you at the end of class and showing up early to set up.  

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The First Two Weeks - Days 6 & 7

Let's see... Saturday was mostly an off day.  Was looking forward to heading out to the driving range, but the weather didn't cooperate.  I got about 15 swings in before the lightning and thunder started.  Followed by OMG that's a lot of rain.  The practice tee turned into a water hazard after about 45 min:


I thought this course had a driving range?
You know it's bad when the people that work at the course are taking pics and sending them to other employees to show them how much water is on the ground.  After over an hour it slacked off enough that I headed out to my car only to find out that I was parked in a low spot in the parking lot.  The water was up over my ankles and waterproof golf shoes aren't waterproof when submerged in water.  Oh well.  After getting home and drying off I went to the gym and then the rest of the evening was spent on putting the apt together a bit more.  

Sunday I slept in a bit then spent the morning working on finishing up stuff for Monday.  I had to finalize all four versions of my syllabus (one for each class with the class-specific info, like test dates).  Uploading them to the online course management system was a pain in the butt because there is no "press here if you're never used the system" button.  All of the help files assume prior knowledge of the system, or even worse, refer to each other in an infinite loop that sucks knowledge out of the user's brain.  After randomly clicking on buttons I got my syllabi uploaded and e-mailed one class to let them know that our room was changed.  I hope.  

After lunch, laundry, and dishes it was time to head into the office to make sure my computer will still work with the projector.  I tested it out on the lecture hall for my 250 person class and damn that projection screen is big.  And some of those images are really impressive on a screen that is like a movie screen.  I'll have to measure it next time I'm in there.  Fortunately everything worked, including the sound so I should be good to go for tomorrow.  I left there at five and headed over to a different golf course only to find out that they were so slow because of bad weather that they were closing early.  *sigh*

Tomorrow is the first day of classes so its time to head to bed so I can get up bright and early and be ready for my first class at 8:30am.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The First Two Weeks - Day 5

Yesterday I was a bit slow in getting out of bed, but traffic wasn't really any worse at 8am than it is at 7:30am, so I made it to the office in a reasonable amount of time.  The day's plan: be really productive in getting ready for the first week of classes!  Goals for the day included:

-Finishing up and posting my syllabus on the course web site
-Adding the final details to my first lecture
-Make some much needed changes to lecture #2
-Complete the worksheets that will accompany lecture #3 (Which was already done. Yay!)
-Visit the four different classrooms I'll be teaching in and test out the video projection/sound systems.

Since I am not like the Emperor and I know that things will not proceed exactly as I have foreseen, I was going to pretty much have everything for the first week completely finished so that during the first week I can focus on reacting to any problems that might arise.  Or so I thought.

Starting with the 4th point listed above I set out to find my different classrooms and make sure everything worked.  The first room is still under renovation.  I'm not sure what they are doing since every time I walk by people are just sitting in the chairs and not renovating.  In the next room, the control panel on the podium was not communicating with the projector, so nothing happened.  And it turned out that the one person on campus that could fix it is on vacation.  Seriously?  The AV guy takes a vacation on the last working day before classes start?  Off to the third room where the projector worked, but I couldn't get anything to project.  All signs pointed to my adapter as being the problem.  Then the fourth classroom.  W(here)TF is it?  Oh, halfway across campus?  Fun.  Walking at a pretty brisk pace it took me about 7 minutes to get there.  That may not sound like a lot, but remember that I'm in the south, and right now it is sunny, so the heat index is about 1000.  It rains a lot, which cools the temperature, but makes it even more humid, so the head index is like... 1000.  And I'm going to be carrying equipment (like power supplies and gas spectrum tubes) back and forth.  Anyway, in that room I still couldn't project anything, so I thought I was going to have to got to the apple store, but... 

Around lunch time I ran into another faculty that happened to have the same video adapter that I have.  We stopped in one of the classrooms and checked my computer with his adapter and it displayed perfectly.  We tried my computer with my adapter and everything magically worked.  So, I tried three other rooms and every time my computer worked just fine in all of them.  *sigh*  I'm glad it worked, but I have no idea what the problem was or if it will happen again.  Guess I'll carry two laptops around with me for the first few lectures.  All said and done, I wasted about 5 hours just dealing with classroom projection issues.  

I had planned on leaving early to get some exercise in, but about 3:30pm a grad student showed up and introduced himself as the new lab instructor.  The Friday before classes seems a bit late to give TA's their jobs (my last institution had that stuff figured out over the summer), but, whatever.  He seemed really excited about teaching, which is important.  He then asked about the lab manual and what I wanted him to teach this semester...

Oh, poor kid.  Didn't they tell you the lab manual is like Big Foot?  There are rumors that it exists and some fuzzy evidence, but no one has ever actually seen it.  And, I'm not in charge of the labs.  I'm your supervisor in that I'm supposed to make sure you are actually teaching and not just goofing off.  In reality, I have no clue and have only been in the dept for a week.  You're screwed.  OK, I actually have some lab experience, have some ideas for new labs and will do what I can to help him out, but with no lab manual it's going to be a long semester.  

On the positive side, just before I left work at about 5:30pm I found out that we got the distant classroom switched to one across the parking lot.  It smells like an old musty motel room, but at least I won't be in need of a nap by the time I make to the room.

So did I get anything useful accomplished on Friday?  Negative Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.  That's what the weekend is for, right?