Video Killed the Writing Assignment

April 16, 2016: We move pretty fast in Phys 105 – 13.7 billion years of astronomy in about 15 weeks of classes… roughly one chapter per class period. So 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 even about the really cool people and instruments that make these observations possible.

Therefore, I’ve asked my students to pick a topic to investigate further. I started out by assigning this 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 and to already, I decided to assign this project as a video assignment instead. This way, students can use a technology they know to be creative and imaginative but still learn a little (or a lot of) science along the way – liberal arts at work in a science class. Perfect.

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

The results have been more than I expected (and I am more impressed each semester). Students have created videos in the form of

The Day-To-Day Show (Galactic Cannibalism), by Katherine Devournsey and Jackie Simanson (2009)

The Astronomy Shoppin’ Show (Kepler), by Hannah Trager and Will Forgrave (2009)

parodies of television shows:
The Office (Discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background) by David Gentile and Mike Palmer (2010)

Mythbusters (Moon Landing Hoaxes) by Dori Williams and Ben Bower (2009)

Law and Order: Space Victims Unit (Discovery of Neptune) by Harrison Plaskey and Amanda Allen (2015)

or videos cast as documentaries or stories that sometimes include a cast of characters whose actors are not even in the class:
Nebulae by Dan Palmer and Amy Sorenson (2009)

Mars by Randy Kardas and Kelly Wyatt (2013)

Black Holes by Lequietta Perkins and Po Davis (2013)

This semester, video topics included supernovae, Harry Potters’ Astronomy, wormholes, Galileo vs. the Catholic Church, Stephen Hawking, interviews with the storms of the gas giant planets, Women of Astronomy, and the life of Tycho Brahe. If you watch them, I hope you enjoy these as much as I did!  More can be found by searching for “Albion College Astronomy” at

The video judged best by the class – the People’s Choice Award winner – receives a special prize – a space mission decal, astronaut food, NASA bling – or whatever is behind “Door #2” (hint…it’s usually chocolate) and gets posted on my blog (so click here to see some winners!). I evaluate the videos on content, scientific accuracy, entertainment value, and whether or not the instructions were followed. I usually also follow-up with an exam question that asks students what they learned from making their own videos and what they learned by watching their classmates’ videos.

By remembering that “[w]e especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.” (Maria Mitchell, 1818-1889), I think students realize that physics and math (in the form of astronomy) aren’t so scary after all and can be very much accessible to them. After 15 semesters of this assignment, I find that students look forward to this project because it gives them the opportunity to showcase talents that may not be reflected in the “mathy” questions on exams. And that’s okay with me. Because the point of the class to teach students how to appreciate the night sky, in all its wonder, and how we know what we know about it. And they do.

Oh – and what’s my favorite? After watching over 100 of these videos, I have to say that “Life of a Low-mass Star”, one of the first ones from 2009, is the winner. It was made in the first class that received this assignment and the video set a very high bar. It’s creative, (mostly) scientifically accurate, and shows a tremendous amount of thought and effort. I guess it’s true that you never forget your first… astronomy video.


Note: A shorter version of this post was published as a teaching reflection on the Center for Teaching and Learning  blog page at Albion College.