CTL Newsletter: April 19, 2016

Teaching Reflections: Video Killed the Writing Assignment

We move pretty fast in Physics 105 – 13.7 billion years of astronomy in 14 weeks. It’s impossible to talk about all of the really cool things that are happening in our solar system, our galaxy, and the universe, or about the really cool people and instruments that make our observations possible.

Therefore, I’ve asked my students to investigate a topic on their own. The project started out as a writing assignment, but after reading multiple – and sometimes very bad – biographies of Galileo and Copernicus, I needed a change. Since many of my students were posting to youtube.com already, I decided on a video assignment instead. This way, students can use a familiar technology and exercise their creativity while learning a little (or a lot of) science along the way. Perfect.

The assignment is to create a video of a famous astronomer, astronomical object or discovery, or telescope observatory. Students usually work together in pairs to make a 5-to-10-minute digital video. Their task is to be creative yet still include accurate scientific content. Edutainment, if you will. Students post their videos on youtube.com or the College’s shared drive. We watch all of the videos together as a class, and I provide the treats. Astronomy @ the movies!

The results have been better than I expected (and I am more impressed each semester). Students have created talk shows such as The Day-To-Day Showand The Astronomy Shoppin’ Show; parodies of television shows such as The Office, Mythbusters, and Law and Order: Space Victims Unit; and documentaries on Nebulae, Mars, and Black Holes. My favorite is, and has always been, Life of a Low-Mass Star, one of the first videos from 2009. (I guess it’s true that you never forget your first.) I can’t wait to see this semester’s videos on Harry Potter’s Astronomy, the lives of Galileo and Tycho Brahe, interviews with the storms on gas giant planets, and Real Housewives of Astronomy.

The video judged best by the class receives a prize and gets posted on my blog. I evaluate the videos on content, scientific accuracy, entertainment value, and adherence to instructions. I usually follow up with an exam question about what students learned from making their own videos and watching the videos of their classmates.

“We especially need imagination in science.  It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry” (Maria Mitchell, 1818-1889). A video project helps students realize that physics and math aren’t so scary after all. I find that students look forward to this project because it gives them the opportunity to showcase talents and knowledge that may not be reflected in the “mathy” questions on exams.  And that’s okay with me.  Because the point of the class is to help students learn how to appreciate the night sky, in all its wonder, and how we know what we know about it. And they do.

— Nicolle Zellner, Physics



Focus on the Intentional Integration of Knowledge. That’s the first theme of the new Albion College Strategic Plan. It integrates “curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular programming”;  “students, faculty, and staff”; scholarship and ethics; “teaching, research, scholarship, and creative and professional activity”; vocation, community, and the world.

To learn more about integrative learning, browse the AAC&U website along with resources from MSU and Evergreen State College.

Build an Open, Diverse, and Inclusive College Community. That’s the second strategic planning theme. Faculty Focus has just published a handbook on “Diversity and Inclusion in the College Classroom.” You can download it for free. Sample articles: “Creating an Inclusive and Respectful Classroom Environment” and “Building a Collegial Classroom across Cultures.”

Summer Reading can guide us in reflecting on how things went this academic year and pondering new ideas for next year. The CTL can help! Check out the Resources on our website. And check out a book from the CTL library (on the shelves in the CTL Lounge, Ferguson 108). Featured titles include Assessing and Improving Your Teaching, Understanding by Design, and Mapping Your Academic Career. While you’re there, answer the question on our blackboard wall: What did you want to be when you grew up?

PathFinder. There are lots of other books in the CTL Lounge that you can’t check out because they don’t belong to the CTL. They include The Peak Performing Professor, Putting Students First, The Purposeful Graduate, and The Courage to Teach. If you’d like a free copy, just register for PathFinder by emailing pathfinder@albion.edu. This integrative learning project engages students, faculty, and staff in intentional reflection on learning and life.


CTL News

Course Development Workshop. We’re looking at August 15, so save the date! This year we’ll focus on designing our courses around learning goals for culturally diverse classrooms.

Lunch and Learning. Look for new discussion topics this fall, including teaching about racism and/or privilege and handling microaggressions in the classroom. As always, if you’d like to see a topic on the table, please email Jocelyn McWhirter at ctl@albion.edu.

Teaching Reflections. Many thanks again to everyone who wrote a teaching reflection this semester. If you’d like to share a reflection in the fall, email (you guessed it) ctl@albion.edu.

About Jocelyn McWhirter

Jocelyn McWhirter is the Stanley S. Kresge Professor of Religious Studies at Albion College in Albion, Michigan.
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